How the three kinds of objects work in English


RECENTLY, I gave a Russian member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum a tutorial of sorts on how the three kinds of grammatical objects work in English.


Ivan Ivanov was sure that in a sentence like “She gave me the report,” the pronoun “me” is the indirect object while the noun “report” is the direct object. But then he wondered what kind of object “me” is in the sentences “She gave it to me” and “She did it for me.” He asked: “Can we call it a prepositional object or, if that’s a wrong term, would it be better to say that ‘to me’ and ‘for me’ are just prepositional phrases?”

I explained to Ivan that to clearly understand the workings of the grammatical objects, it’s very important to define each of them first.
The core points of of my explanation are these:

Generally, an object is a noun or pronoun that denotes the goal or result of the verb’s action. It is of three kinds: direct object, indirect object, and object of the preposition.

A direct object receives the verb’s action or shows the result of that action. In “The mechanic fixed the car,” for example, the noun “car” is the direct object because it is the entity acted upon by the verb “fixed.”

An indirect object receives the direct object of the verb. It is the secondary goal of the verb’s action—an intermediary or “pass-on” receiver. In “Alex gave me a ride,” for example, “me” is an indirect object because it’s only a “pass-on” receiver of the noun “ride,” which is the direct object.

An object of the preposition is a noun or pronoun introduced by a preposition to complete the meaning of a phrase that modifies a sentence. This modifying phrase is what’s known as a prepositional phrase. For example, in “The unsavory revelations against the politician placed his integrity under a cloud of doubt,” the noun phrase “a cloud of doubt” is the object of the preposition “under.”

Now let’s figure out why Ivan found it tough to categorize the objects in these sentences: “She gave it to me.” “She did it for me.”

Their syntax looks pretty normal as it goes. The pronoun “it” as direct object comes right after the verb “gave” and “did,” respectively, while the pronoun “me” as indirect object appears at the tail end.

An unusual thing happens though when the direct object isn’t “it” but a noun like, say, “laptop” or “favor.” In the sentences “She gave me the laptop” and “She did me a favor,” for instance, “me” has moved from the tail end to a position right after the verb. This question then comes to mind: Did “me” change status from indirect object to direct object in the process?

Then something even more unusual happens when “laptop” and “favor” are reverted to the pronoun “it,” which was their original form. These very awkward, bad-sounding, and fuzzy constructions are the result: “She gave me it.” “She did me it.” Clearly, a sentence becomes dysfunctional when it lumps the verb with a direct object and indirect object that are both pronouns, for it seriously blurs the distinction between direct object and indirect object.

How does English avoid such awful constructions? It uses the expedient of positioning the direct object “it” right after the verb and moving the indirect object “me” to the tail end where it becomes what Ivan calls a prepositional object. The first sentence that baffled him thus becomes the clearer, better-sounding “She gave it to me,” where “me” is now the object of the preposition “to”; the second sentence becomes “She did it for me,” where “me” is now the object of the preposition “for.” In both constructions, however, “me” also retains its grammatical function as the verb’s indirect object.

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