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Traditional grammar defines the object in a sentence as the entity that is acted upon by the subject. There is thus a primary distinction between subjects and objects that is understood in terms of the action expressed by the verb, e.g. Tom studies grammar—Tom is the subject and grammar is the object. Traditional theories of sentence structure divide the simple sentence into a subject and a predicate, whereby the object is taken to be part of the predicate. Many modern theories of grammar (e.g. dependency grammars), in contrast, take the object to be a verb argument like the subject, the difference between them being mainly just their prominence; the subject is ranked higher than the object and is thus more prominent.
The main verb in a clause determines whether and what objects are present. Transitive verbs require the presence of an object, whereas intransitive verbs block the appearance of an object. The term complement overlaps in meaning with object: all objects are complements, but not vice versa. The objects that verbs do and do not take is explored in detail in valency theory.
Various object types are commonly acknowledged: direct, indirect, and prepositional. These object types are illustrated in the following table:
Type Description Example Direct object Entity acted upon Sam fed the dogs. Indirect object Entity indirectly affected by the action She sent him a present. Prepositional object Object introduced by a preposition She is waiting for Lucy.
The descriptions "entity acted upon" and "entity indirectly affected by the action" are merely loose orientation points. Beyond basic examples such as those provided in the table, these orientation points are not much help when the goal is to determine whether a given object should be viewed as direct or indirect. One rule of thumb for English, however, is that an indirect object is not present unless a direct object is also present, and if both are present, the indirect object precedes the direct object. A prepositional object is one that is introduced by a preposition. Despite the difficulties with the traditional nomenclature, the terms direct object and indirect object are widespread.
The term oblique object is also employed at times, although what exactly is meant varies from author to author. Some understand it to be an umbrella term denoting all objects (direct, indirect, and prepositional), whereas others use the term to denote just a prepositional object.
While the typical object is a pronoun, noun, or noun phrase, objects can also appear as other syntactic categories, as illustrated in the following table:
Category Example Noun (phrase) or pronoun The girl ate fruit. that-clause We remembered that we had to bring something. Bare clause We remembered we had to bring something. for-clause We were waiting for him to explain. Interrogative clause They asked what had happened. Free relative clause I heard what you heard. Gerund (phrase or clause) He stopped asking questions. to-infinitive Sam attempted to leave. Cataphoric it I believe it that she said that.
A number of criteria can be employed for identifying objects, e.g:
- 1. Subject of passive sentence: Most objects in active sentences can become the subject in the corresponding passive sentences.
- 2. Position occupied: In languages with strict word order, the subject and the object tend to occupy set positions in unmarked declarative clauses. The object follows the subject.
- 3. Morphological case: In languages that have case systems, objects are marked by certain cases (accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, etc.).
Languages vary significantly with respect to these criteria. The first criterion identifies objects reliably most of the time in English, e.g.
- Fred gave me a book.
- a. A book was given (to) me.—Passive sentence identifies a book as an object in the starting sentence.
- b. I was given a book.—Passive sentence identifies me as an object in the starting sentence.
The second criterion is also a reliable criterion for isolating languages such as English, since the relatively strict word order of English usually positions the object after the verb(s) in declarative sentences. The third criterion is less applicable to English, though, since English lacks morphological case, exceptions being the personal pronouns (I/me, we/us, he/him, she/her, they/them). For languages that have case and relatively freer word order, morphological case is the most readily available criterion for identifying objects. In Latin and related languages, direct objects are usually marked with the accusative case, and indirect objects with the dative case. However, object marking may also follow non-syntactic rules, such as animacy. In Spanish, for example, human objects have to be marked by the preposition a (as an example of differential object marking).
Verbs can be classified according to the number and/or type of objects that they do or do not take. The following table provides an overview of some of the various verb classes:
Transitive verbs Number of objects Examples Monotransitive One object I fed the dog. Ditransitive Two objects You lent me a lawnmower. Tritransitive Three objects They sold me bananas for two dollars. Intransitive verbs Semantic role of subject Examples Unaccusative Patient The man stumbled twice, The roof collapsed. Unergative Agent He works in the morning, They lie often. Transitive Example Ergative The submarine sank the freighter. Object deletion We have already eaten dinner. Intransitive Example Ergative The freighter sank. Object deletion We have already eaten.
The distinction drawn here between ergative and object-deletion verbs is based on the role of the subject. The object of a transitive ergative verb is the subject of the corresponding intransitive ergative verb. With object-deletion verbs, in contrast, the subject is consistent regardless of whether an object is or is not present.
In sentence structure
Objects are distinguished from subjects in the syntactic trees that represent sentence structure. The subject appears (as high or) higher in the syntactic structure than the object. The following trees of a dependency grammar illustrate the hierarchical positions of subjects and objects:
The subject is in blue, and the object in orange. The subject is consistently a dependent of the finite verb, whereas the object is a dependent of the lowest non-finite verb if such a verb is present.
- For descriptions of the traditional distinction between subject and object, see for instance Freeborn (1995:31) and Kesner Bland (1996:415).
- The division of the clause into a subject and a predicate is a view of sentence structure that is adopted by most grammars, e.g. Conner (1968:43), Freeborn (1995:121), and Biber et al. (1999:122).
- Concerning the fact that the object is part of the predicate, see for instance Biber et al. (1999:122).
- The insight that the arguments and adjuncts of verbs are ranked is expressed as the Accessibility Hierarchy. See Keenan and Comrie (1977).
- The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is acknowledged by most any grammar. See for instance the Collins Cobuild Grammar (1995:139ff.).
- Concerning the historical distinction between direct and indirect objects, see Conner (1968:108f.).
- Biber et al. (1999), for instance, use the term oblique object to denote an object that is introduced by a preposition.
- See Biber et al. (1999:126) for a similar list of characteristics that identify (direct) objects.
- Concerning the passive as a diagnostic for identifying objects, see for instance Freeborn (1995:175) and Biber et al. (1999:126).
- For a classification of transitive verbs along the lines used here but using different terminology, see for instance Conner (1968:103ff.).
- Concerning ergative verbs, see for instance the Collins Cobuild English Grammar (1995:155f.) and Biber et al. (1999:155f.).
- The term object-deletion verb is adopted from Biber et al. (1999:147). Such verbs are also called ambitransitive.
- Dependency trees similar to the ones produced here can be found in Ágel et al. (2003/6).
- Ágel, V., L. Eichinger, H.-W. Eroms, P. Hellwig, H. Heringer, and H. Lobin (eds.) 2003/6. Dependency and valency: An international handbook of contemporary research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
- Biber, D. et al. 1999. Longman Grammar of spoken and written English. Essex, England: Pearson Education limited.
- Carnie, A. 2013. Syntax: A generative introduction, 3rd edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Collins Cobuild English Grammar 1995. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
- Conner, J. 1968. A grammar of standard English. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Freeborn, D. 1995. A course book in English grammar: Standard English and the dialects, 2nd edition. London: McMillian Press LTD.
- Keenan, E. and B. Comrie 1977. Noun phrase accessibility and universal grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 8. 63–99.
- Kesner Bland, S. Intermediate grammar: From form to meaning and use. New York: Oxford University Press.