The Grammarphobia Blog

Coming to terms

Q: In a recent post, you agreed with a questioner that the instructor on a grammar video was wrong to refer to a prepositional phrase as an indirect object. As a 20-year veteran of college-prep ESL, I think the instructor may have known the correct terminology but simplified his explanation. I’ve found that grammar terms are unbearably confusing and intimidating to most students in the classroom.

A: We certainly agree that grammatical terminology can be “unbearably confusing and intimidating” (that goes double for those studying English as a second language). And proper grammar can often be explained without using bewildering terms.

This is what inspired Pat to write Woe Is I, which is an attempt to make problems in English understandable—to put “Better English in Plain English,” as the subtitle says. Although the book oten mentions grammatical terms, it always explains them in plain English.

But readers of our blog sometimes (in fact, quite often) ask questions that require a close analysis of what’s going on grammatically. And while we try to answer as clearly and plainly as possible, we have to beware of oversimplification.

As we say in the posting that got your attention, the sentence “I gave the book to her” can be used instead of “I gave her the book.” In the first sentence, “to her” is a prepositional phrase; in the second, “her” is an indirect object.

We explain that “a prepositional phrase can be used in place of an indirect object,” and “you might even say that the indirect object in this sentence has been paraphrased as a prepositional phrase.”

But we were asked a specific question about terminology. And it would not be correct to say that the prepositional phrase IS an indirect object.

We do sympathize with teachers who try to make English as plain and simple as possible—we do too! But we think it can be done without letting an error slip in because of oversimplification.

Thanks for your comments. And don’t hesitate to let us hear from you again.

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