Verbs that need an object noun (or equivalent) after them cannot drop it when its meaning is obvious
THE VARIABLE GRAMMAR OF ENGLISH VERBS
English verbs vary in the kind of words they need with them. Some, such as SAY, always need two nouns (or equivalent) with no preposition before either: a sentence with just one, e.g. *someone said, is incomplete. Other verbs, such as RISE, must have only one such noun, so easily occur in statements like taxes rose. And a third group, such as CELEBRATE, allow a choice, like this:
(a) When independence was granted, everyone celebrated (it).
This sentence remains grammatical (though not necessarily with the same meaning) regardless of whether or not it is used (for an explanation of “grammatical”, see 100. What is a Grammar Error?).
When a verb is being learned, the kinds of combinations that it can make with nouns are as important to remember as its meaning. This is because they cannot reliably be predicted from the meaning. Consider again the verb SAY. Its meaning of “utter words” is also expressible with the verb SPEAK. However, SPEAK can be used with just one noun (e.g. someone spoke) where SAY needs two.
As a further example, consider the following use of ENJOY:
(b) When independence was granted, everyone enjoyed … .
This sentence can end with it, just as (a) can: the meaning would then be that independence was what everyone enjoyed. What, however, should we write if enjoyed just meant “had enjoyment”, in the way that celebrated by itself means “had celebrations”? You could not, in fact, just write enjoyed by itself: a second noun (or equivalent) must always be present with this verb. What you would have to add here is themselves (see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words). For another problem with ENJOY, see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1, #(b).
The second noun that is always needed after verbs like SAY and ENJOY is known in grammar as their “object”. In this post I aim to raise awareness of situations where object-dropping errors can occur and to provide some practice in getting the grammar right.
DEFINITION OF A GRAMMATICAL OBJECT
In order to understand about object use, it is important first to be clear what an object is. Readers who know this are invited to jump to the next section.
Grammarians use the word “object” for a particular part of a sentence. The underlined word in the following sentence is an object:
(c) South America has a wide variety of geographical features.
The word variety here has all of the following object characteristics:
I. They are usually a noun or pronoun, though they can also be an adjective (see 6. Adjectives with no Noun 1: People-Naming) or even a whole statement introduced by that (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”). Variety is a noun.
II. They usually come after a subject and an active verb in a sentence (see 12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices regarding subjects, and 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1 regarding active verbs).
III. They combine their meaning with that of the verb to say something about the subject (e.g. an action done by it, one of its characteristics, an experience, or what it possesses). Objects will not normally represent the same person, thing or idea as the subject unless they are a -self word (see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words).
IV. They do not have a preposition immediately in front, unless the verb is “prepositional” (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions and 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs). In sentence (c) the object of has is variety, not features, because the latter has the preposition of before it. Note, though, that “indirect” objects – which are not objects but resemble them in some ways – can follow the prepositions to or for (see 126. Verbs with an Indirect Object).
One final important point is that objects are less frequently found in sentences than subjects: all sentences need a subject, but not all need an object.
GOOD REASONS FOR A MISSING GRAMMATICAL OBJECT
The decision to include or exclude an object after a verb depends mostly on the verb chosen. There are two main kinds of verb which are found without an object: intransitive verbs and object-dropping verbs.
1. Intransitive Verbs
Intransitive verbs never allow an object to follow them. An example is increased in the following sentence:
(d) Crime increased (in the capital).
As this shows, an intransitive verb can be used in the active voice without any other words after it, and if there is a following noun (like the capital), there must also be a preposition (in).
An important point to note about increased is that it is an intransitive verb only with the above meaning (= “went up”). There is another meaning (= “caused to go up”) that is not intransitive at all. Many other verbs have two meanings – one intransitive and one not – like INCREASE (for details see 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive), but there are also some that have only an intransitive meaning, such as RISE (see 113. Verbs That Cannot Be Passive).
Dictionaries indicate verbs like RISE with the abbreviation “vi” (= verb intransitive) and verbs like INCREASE with “vt and vi” (= verb transitive and intransitive).
A different type of intransitive verb is illustrated by became in the following sentence:
(e) The opposition leader became the President.
This sentence looks as if it has an object because the President is a noun after the verb and there is no preposition before it. However, grammarians exclude such nouns as objects because they do not represent a different idea from that of the subject, as required by condition III above (the President and the opposition leader are the same person). This sort of noun is usually called a “complement” and is found with characteristic verbs like BE and BECOME. For more examples, see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”, 92. Complement-Showing “As” and 113. Verbs that Cannot Be Passive.
2. Object-Dropping Verbs
An object-dropping verb does not at first sight seem any different from an intransitive verb. Here is an example:
(f) Your life is threatened if you smoke.
What is special about verbs like SMOKE is that you can usually add an object without making the sentence ungrammatical or changing the meaning. The probable “understood” object in the example is, of course, tobacco. This property means object-dropping verbs are normally considered to be transitive. Other examples are ANSWER, DRINK, DRIVE, EAT, FORGET, HELP, KNOW, PARK, REMEMBER, SPEAK, UNDERSTAND and WRITE.
VERBS USED WRONGLY WITHOUT AN OBJECT
Many English verbs are neither intransitive nor object-dropping: like SAY and ENJOY, they must be used with an object. They are usually called “transitive”. The error of dropping their object seems to arise in special situations. One is the existence of another verb with similar meaning but different grammar, as illustrated above with SAY and SPEAK. Another seems to be when the meaning of the object is obvious from the surrounding words.
In this situation, it is easy to be influenced by the fact that many other types of obvious word can be dropped without any grammar rule being broken (see 36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition). Even objects are sometimes absent, despite the bad grammar, in places where following grammar rules is less important, such as notes (see 158. Abbreviated Sentences).
In formal writing, an obvious object has to be expressed with a word like “everyone”, “themselves”, “someone”, “people”, “it” or “them”. Examples are in the exercise below. Alternatively, you can exchange the verb for an intransitive or object-dropping one – if you know which verbs are of this kind – or use a different construction altogether (see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”?).
The following exercise should show whether or not you are likely to leave out an obvious-seeming object after an object-requiring verb. It also contains some very useful African wisdom.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: ABSENT OBJECTS
Here are some translations of African proverbs, each with a missing object. Readers are invited to find where these missing objects should be, and suggest words to express them (answers below).
1. He is disguising like someone who urinates while bathing.
2. They risk like a bald-headed man carrying a load on his head.
3. It is better to treat immediately than to wait.
4. An old hunting net catches even when there is no sign of animals.
5. A host who tells you to eat first will not escort you home when you have completed.
6. A widow will always compare with her late husband.
7. However bad someone may be, his relatives will not completely reject.
8. Do not refuse to heed when people try to make a point.
9. However tasty the meat may be, you should not refuse to give to the one who roasted it.
10. He who says he has replaced something is better than he who only tells you that something is worn out, without replacing.
11. Let me work even if they hate me, for they will appreciate after I have gone.
12. People will always praise when you are still in a position of authority.
13. Do not allow to be burned by the soup, which will always cool down.
14. Never make a decision when angry, as you may regret the rest of your life.
ANSWERS (Missing Objects)
1. … disguising himself/his actions.
2. … risk their life/wellbeing; or take risks.
3. … treat an illness/condition/problem/malfunction.
4. … catches something.
5. … completed your meal.
6. … compare a man/a suitor (one could also say make comparisons – see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”?)
7. … reject him.
8. … heed people when they …; or take heed.
9. … to give some.
10. … without replacing it.
11. … appreciate me/my work/what I have done.
12. … praise you.
13. Do not allow yourself/anyone.
14. … may regret it.