Grammar Linguistics

Object lessons

Q: My fellow English teachers and I are stumped by how to diagram this sentence: “See Spot run.” The subject is the missing but understood “you,” the verb is “see,” and the direct object is “Spot.” But what part of speech is “run”?

A: In the sentence “See Spot run,” the implied subject is “you,” the verb is “see,” the indirect object is “Spot,” and the direct object is the infinitive “run.”

An infinitive or infinitive phrase (an infinitive preceded by “to”) can be the direct object of a verb. Here’s another example: “I want you to go.”

Subject, “I”; verb, “want”; indirect object, “you”; direct object, “to go” (infinitive phrase).

If those sentences did not include the infinitives (that is, if they consisted of “See Spot” and “I want you”), then “Spot” and “you” would be direct objects. When a verb has only one object, it’s a direct object.

Similarly, in the sentence “I intend to go,” the verb has only one object, a direct object (the infinitive phrase “to go”). 

Another so-called “verbal,” the gerund, can also be a direct object, as in “I intend going [direct object].”  

We’ve written several times on the blog about direct and indirect objects, including a post earlier this year entitled “Object oriented.”

By the way, when you have both kinds of objects following the verb, the indirect object nearly always comes first:

“Give them my love” … “Bake me a cake” … “Make it go” … “I helped him escape” … “You made me understand.”

In the last three examples, the direct objects are infinitives: “go,” “escape,” “understand.”

The only exception in which the direct object comes before the indirect object is a British usage involving two pronouns. Examples: “Give it me” … “Tell it her.”

Incidentally, a prepositional phrase like “to me” or “for her” can be used in place of an indirect object, but the phrase is not technically considered an indirect object.

The pronouns “me” and “her” here are objects of a preposition, not objects of a verb.

If you’d like to know more, we can direct to you Otto Jespersen’s Essentials of  English Grammar (1933). The book has been reissued in paperback.

Jespersen, a renowned grammarian, discusses the use of infinitives as objects on pages 271-272.

In addition, if you have access to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, see the section starting on page 244. This is a very technical book.

The authors, the linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, discuss clauses that have one object (“monotransitive”) and two (“ditransitive”).

Where only one object exists, they write, “that object is always a direct object, even if it corresponds semantically to the indirect object of a ditransitive clause.” (Page 251).

We’ll simplify the examples they use to illustrate this point:

(1) “She teaches students [indirect object] logic [direct object].”

(2) “She teaches students [direct object].”

(3) “She teaches logic [direct object].”

So the direct object in sentence #2 corresponds to the indirect object in sentence #1.

We hope this sheds some light.

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