126. Verbs with an Indirect Object

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Giving

Some English verbs can be used with two nouns after them, one an “indirect object”

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THE CONCEPT OF INDIRECT OBJECTS

English grammars often talk of indirect objects: nouns or their equivalents (pronouns, gerunds, noun phrases, etc.) that sometimes follow a verb along with its “object” (for details of objects, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors and 31. Prepositi0ns after Action Nouns 1). Here are some sentences with an indirect object:

(a) The Government need to build more homes for the poor.

(b) Einstein gave his full attention to the problem of gravity.

The matter I want to address here is the exact value of calling the underlined words indirect objects. How are they different from other nouns that are combined with a preposition in a sentence and given the technical name of “adverbials” (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions)? There does not seem to be much reason for giving them a separate name even if we recognise that particular prepositions are involved (nearly always to or for), and a particular meaning is conveyed (that of “beneficiary” or “recipient”: the poor above are the envisaged beneficiaries of more homes being built, and the problem of gravity was the recipient of Einstein’s increased attention).

Put another way, the question is what is special about the kind of preposition phrases in (a) and (b) compared to others like the direction-showing one in this example:

(c) The River Nile empties its waters into the Mediterranean Sea.

The topic of indirect objects places this post in the same category as various others that deal with the major divisions of a sentence – subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial – for example 8. Object-Dropping Errors,  12. Singular and Plural Verb Choices,  92. Complement-Showing “As” and 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs.

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JUSTIFICATION OF THE TERM “INDIRECT OBJECT”

One major reason why English grammars talk of indirect objects is the influence of other languages, particularly Latin, the language that dominated Europe 2000 years ago (see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling). In Latin, although prepositions are used for most meanings that also need a preposition in English, they are not used to show the meaning of an indirect object – special noun endings are used instead. It therefore makes sense in Latin grammars to separately recognize indirect objects. This approach has influenced the description of English grammar because English grammar was originally analyzed using concepts developed for Latin.

Moreover, many other modern European languages act more or less similarly to Latin, particularly in respect of personal pronouns. French and German, for example, have special forms of pronouns like “me”, “you” and “him/her” to show when they are indirect objects.

Of course, the mere fact that other languages have a good reason for using a particular grammatical concept does not mean that that concept should be used in English. So is there anything about English that might justify talk of indirect objects? I think there actually is. It is the fact that this kind of noun can be written without a preposition as well as with one. Here is sentence (b) rewritten in this other way:

(d) Einstein gave the problem of gravity his full attention.

Here, it will be seen, the noun that was originally after to (problem) has lost this preposition and has changed places with the other noun. Having these alternative word orders allows either of the two nouns to be placed at the end of the sentence, where English typically likes to place the most important information. One of the two nouns is the object of the verb. What name should be given to the other?

One side matter to address before considering this is the fact that not all sentences with two preposition-less nouns after the verb are like (d). Consider this example from the Guinlist post 92. Complement-Showing “As”:

(e) Some football injuries can leave the victims invalids for life.

This sentence cannot be changed so that the victims follows a preposition. The reason is that this noun, and not the one after it, is the direct object of the verb can leave. The one after (invalids) is an “object complement” – a description or identification of the object. Part of the key to knowing whether or not an object complement is present is the meaning or nature of the verb: LEAVE is of the kind that allows object complements, GIVE that allows “indirect objects”.

In sentences like (d), one name that is sometimes given to the noun that is not the direct object is simply “second object”. This recognizes the fact that in many cases either of the two “objects” can be the subject of the verb in the passive form, as in these examples based on (d):

(f) The problem of gravity was given full attention by Einstein.

(g) Full attention was given by Einstein to the problem of gravity.

The argument is then made that if both nouns in sentences like (d) can be called “objects”, then the term “indirect object” can again be dropped altogether, since every way of using one can be described with another term.

However, once again there is an argument against this and in favour of calling one of the two nouns an indirect object. It is based on the observation that the two nouns do not accompany a passive verb in a wholly equal way. One difference between them is that, when each is placed after the passive verb, the indirect object – (problem) in (g) – needs a preposition in front (to), while the direct object – (attention) in (f) – does not.

Another difference is that the indirect object can usually be omitted after a passive verb without creating incorrect grammar, whereas the direct object cannot: to the problem of gravity can be left out of (g) but full attention cannot be left out of (f) (note, though, that after the passive of OWE, PAY, TEACH, TELL and SHOW either noun can be omitted). Clearly, once these differences are recognized by means of calling one of the nouns an indirect object, it makes sense also to use the term in other situations.

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GRAMMAR ERRORS INVOLVING INDIRECT OBJECTS

The main problem that the above-described grammar of English indirect objects seems to give to inexperienced English speakers is recognising when it applies. Everything depends on the verb being used. There is value in recognising that verbs with a similar meaning to GIVE often have similar grammar – but exceptions need to be remembered. Those that are fully like GIVE include ALLOT, ASSIGN, AWARD, BEQUEATH, BRING, BUILD, GRANT, HAND, LEAVE (= “place in waiting”), LEND, MAKE, OFFER, OWE, PASS, PAY, POST, PREPARE, PROMISE, RELAY, SAVE, SHOW, SEND, SET, TEACH, TELL and WRITE.

The verb ASK is almost like those above: it just needs of where the others would have to or for: ask (something) of (someone). Various other verbs always need to or for before a recipient noun, regardless of word order. Examples (for verbs underlined) are CLARIFY, COMMUNICATE, DEFINE, DELIVER, DEMONSTRATE, DESCRIBE, DISCLOSE, DONATE, EXPLAIN, IMPLY, INDICATE, REVEAL, SAY, SUGGEST, TALK and TRANSFER. Of these, EXPLAIN and SAY seem to give rise the most commonly to the error of dropping the to (see 140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 2 #[b]).

Problematic in a different way are FURNISH, INFORM and REWARD. Consider this:

(h) Claimants must inform this office OF any changes in their situation.

The first of the two underlined nouns here (this office) is like an indirect object in representing a recipient, but it has been made an object, with the word that one would expect to be the object (changes) located instead after a preposition (of here – with after FURNISH and REWARD). Learners of English have to remember to include this preposition. Hardly surprisingly, the positions of the two nouns cannot be reversed as they can when an indirect object is present. Verbs like INFORM are, in fact, further examples of the kind considered in the post 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun.

Three verbs that almost have a normal indirect object are PRESENT, PROVIDE and SUPPLY. They can all accompany a recipient noun, and this noun can be used with or without to/for according to its position. What is confusing is that the other noun, which with ordinary indirect-object verbs never needs a preposition, must have with when to/for is absent. Compare:

(i) Exceptions present a challenge TO grammarians.

(j) Exceptions present grammarians WITH a challenge.

As (i) shows, the indirect-object preposition after PRESENT is to. SUPPLY also needs to, but PROVIDE needs for.

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