Direct Object

Consider the examples below. What do the highlighted phrases add to the meanings?

  • He stroked the dog. [W2F-018 #175]
  • They carried mugs of beer. [W2F-018 #140]

These phrases tell us who or what is being 'verbed', i.e. who is undergoing the action denoted by the verbs, in these situations: the dog is stroked, the mugs of beer are carried. Without these phrases, our examples would be incomplete.

If someone said They carried, we would wonder They carried what?

The dog and mugs of beer are noun phrases functioning as Direct Object

(Note: the National Curriculum uses simply Object. The term Indirect Object is not statutory, i.e. it does not need to be taught at KS1 and KS2.).

Direct Objects follow the Predicator (the verb) to complete the clause.

The basic clause pattern is:

Subject

Predicator

Direct Object

He

stroked

the dog

They

carried

mugs of beer

These examples are very clear because the verbs describe actions (stroking, carrying), which directly affect the Direct Object participants: the dog can feel the stroking, the mugs of beer are moved by being carried.

The Direct Object is a grammatical function. Although the Direct Object often refers to an undergoer (or patient), they are not the same thing. Many examples do not involve actions and so there is not really a ‘direct effect’ on the Direct Object participant:

  • I like mineral water. [S1A-019 #13]
  • I heard her voice. [S1B-044 #71]

Mineral water is not really affected by being liked, and her voice is not affected by being heard. Nevertheless, these clauses have the same basic pattern of Subject + Predicator + Direct Object.

Key points

The Direct Object typically:

  • takes the form of a noun phrase
  • comes after the Predicator (the verb) to complete the clause
  • identifies who or what is affected by the action denoted by the verb (in active clauses)
  • takes objective case (if it is a pronoun with different case forms)

Identifying Direct Objects

Can you identify the Direct Objects in these examples? (Note that Adverbials are sometimes added to the basic clause pattern.)

Example Direct Object
  • She’s really squashed the bug. [S1A-018 #239]
She’s really squashed the bug.
  • Heavy rain squalls hit the windscreen. [W2F-018 #19]
Heavy rain squalls hit the windscreen.
  • We saw some photographs at the Ansel Adams Center. [W1B-011 #97]
We saw some photographs at the Ansel Adams Center.
  • He just didn’t understand the situation. [S1A-018 #278]
He just didn’t understand the situation.

Both Direct Object and Subject are typically noun phrases which refer to participants involved in a situation, but they are quite different in other ways.

They have different positions in the clause. The Direct Object typically comes after the Predicator, while the Subject usually comes before the Predicator.

Another difference is that Direct Objects are required by some verbs, but not by others, while a Subject is usually required with all verbs in basic main clauses. Compare:

no Direct Object

no Subject

She laughed.

[complete]

*laughed.

[incomplete]

*They carried.

[incomplete]

*carried mugs of beer.

[incomplete]

The next difference only applies to pronouns which have different case forms (e.g. he/him, they/them).

With these pronouns, the Direct Object takes the accusative case (also called objective case), but the Subject takes the nominative case (also called subjective case):

  • I like him. (NOT *I like he.) [Direct Object]
  • He likes me. (NOT *Him likes me.) [Subject]

Typically, the Direct Object of an active clause can become the Subject of a passive clause, positioned before the Predicator:

active clause

passive clause

He stroked the dog. [Direct Object]

The dog was stroked (by him). [Subject]

They saw the burglar. [Direct Object]

The burglar was seen (by them). [Subject]

In passive main clauses, the verb phrase includes the auxiliary be and a past participle (e.g. stroked, seen in our examples above). For more on passives, see the pages on voice.

We are using the passive when we apply the test ‘Who or what is being verbed?’ to identify the Direct Object in active clauses. But note that we can’t use this test in passive clauses, where it identifies the Subject.

Key points

Direct Object

Subject

typically comes after the Predicator

typically comes before the Predicator

is only needed with some verbs

is always needed in basic main clauses

takes objective case if it is a pronoun (e.g. him)

takes subjective case if it is a pronoun (e.g. he)

identifies ‘who or what is being verbed’ in active clauses

identifies ‘who or what is verbed’ in passive clauses

Direct Objects can also occur in patterns with two Objects following the Predicator.

In this pattern the Direct Object comes after the Indirect Object, e.g.:

  • We can get you a blue bunny costume.

Here you is the Indirect Object and a blue bunny costume is the Direct Object.

For more on this pattern, see the CPD page on Indirect Objects.

Although Direct Objects most often have the form of noun phrases, they can also be subordinate clauses. Compare:

  • I know the phone number of the chap. [S1A-027 #19]
  • I know that it is not your question. [S1B-043 #69]

The first example has a noun phrase as Direct Object. In the second example a subordinate clause fills a similar function so we can also call it a Direct Object.

Can you identify the Direct Objects in these examples? They are all finite subordinate clauses.

Example Direct Object
  • Uhm I certainly believe that the event should have been reported. [S1B-031 #45]
Uhm I certainly believe that the event should have been reported.
  • And uh he said it was temperamental.[S1A-024 #16]
And uh he said it was temperamental.
  • I’m just wondering if this is actually picking anything up.[S1A-008 #212]
I’m just wondering if this is actually picking anything up.
  • I did hear what you said at the beginning.[S1A-050 #144]
I did hear what you said at the beginning.

The examples below have nonfinite clauses as Direct Objects. See if you can identify them.

Example Direct Object
  • I like to watch sport.[S1A-003 #7]
I like to watch sport.
  • Japan and the USSR decided to wait for further scientific evidence.[W2A-030 #50]
Japan and the USSR decided to wait for further scientific evidence.
  • Marshall and Samuel Campbell deny murdering Philip Williams.[W2C-011 #8]
Marshall and Samuel Campbell deny murdering Philip Williams.
  • I don’t remember having an anaesthetic for mine.[S1A-046 #178]
I don’t remember having an anaesthetic for mine.

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