126. Verbs with an Indirect Object



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



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” (objects can be read about in this blog in the post 8. Object-Dropping Errors and 31. Objects of Noun Actions). 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. After all, they seem to be no different from other nouns placed with a preposition after a verb to make an adverb-like phrase (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions), and hence not worth being given a special name. This remains the case 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.



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 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. As the parent post points out, these words are the direct object of the verb can leave, while the second noun invalids is an “object complement” – a description or identification of the object. Part of the key to telling the difference is the meaning or nature of the verb: LEAVE is of the kind that allows object complements, GIVE that allows “indirect objects”.

Some grammars say simply that sentences like (d) have two objects. 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.

Other grammars, however, prefer to call the first of the two nouns in (d) an indirect object. The main advantage seems to be a highlighting of the fact that the two nouns in such sentences are not wholly equal. One difference between them is the way the indirect object follows a passive verb in sentences like (g) – there must again be a preposition (to the problem of gravity).

Another difference is that the indirect object can usually be omitted from sentences like (d) without creating incorrect grammar, whereas the direct object cannot (though this is not always true: either noun can be omitted after the verbs ASK, OWE, PAY, TEACH, TELL and SHOW). Clearly, once these differences are recognized by means of calling the first noun an indirect object, it makes sense also to call the words after to in sentences like (b) an indirect object too, in order to highlight the link with their equivalent in (d).



The main problem that the above-described grammar of English indirect objects seems to give to speakers of a different mother tongue 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 unfortunately some such verbs do not and must always have a preposition before one of the following nouns. Those that are fully like GIVE include ALLOT, ASK, 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.

Verbs that always need to before a recipient noun include COMMUNICATE, DELIVER, DEMONSTRATE, 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 because of its optionality with verbs like them (see 140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 2). Verbs that generally need for before a recipient noun include CLARIFY, DEFINE and DESCRIBE.

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. However, when to/for is absent, the other noun needs with. Compare:

(i) Exceptions present a challenge TO grammarians.

(j) Exceptions present grammarians WITH a challenge.

An indirect object at the end, as in (i), needs to after PRESENT and SUPPLY, but for after PROVIDE.


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