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The Direct Object in English Grammar

Direct objects are words, phrases, and clauses that follow a transitive verb and receive the action of the verb. Although nouns and noun phrases most frequently function as the direct object of clauses, four grammatical forms can perform the grammatical function of direct object in the English language. The four grammatical forms that can function as the direct object are:

  1. Noun phrases
  2. Noun clauses
  3. Verb phrases
  4. Prepositional phrases

Noun Phrases

The first grammatical form that performs the grammatical function of direct object is the noun phrase. Noun phrases are defined as phrases formed by a noun or pronoun and any determiners, modifiers, and complements. For example, the following the following italicized noun phrases function as direct objects:

  • A toddler is eating a banana.
  • I sometimes give my cat fish.
  • The mother dog disciplined her very naughty litter of puppies.
  • A young couple will have bought the house that we are selling.

Noun phrases are the most frequent grammatical form that function as direct objects.

Noun Clauses

The second grammatical form that performs the grammatical function of direct object is the noun clause. Noun clauses are defined as subordinate clauses formed by a clause preceded by a subordinating conjunction. Noun clauses are dependent clauses that perform nominal functions. For example, the following italicized noun clauses function as direct objects:

  • Your mom appreciates that you cleaned the house.
  • I admire how you work fulltime and attend graduate school.
  • The puppy hates when I slam the door shut.
  • Word order determines whether a noun phrase is a subject or an object in English.

Noun clauses can also perform almost all the same functions as noun phrases.

Verb Phrases

The third grammatical form that performs the grammatical function of direct object is the verb phrase in the form of present participles and infinitives. Verb phrases are defined as phrases formed by a verb plus any modifiers, complements, particles, infinitive markers, or determiners. For example, the following italicized verb phrases function as direct objects:

  • Most librarians enjoy reading.
  • My children prefer to eat vegetables.
  • The baby likes listening to music.
  • The cleaning staff appreciates our picking up our messes.

Traditional grammars usually use the term gerund for present participles functioning as direct objects.

Prepositional Phrases

The second grammatical form that performs the grammatical function of direct object is the prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases consist of a preposition directly followed by a prepositional complement. For example, the following italicized prepositional phrases function as direct objects:

  • My mom cleaned under the bed.
  • Your father will be decorating on the roof.
  • I have organized in the refrigerator.
  • Our brother is painting behind the couch.

Prepositional phrases functioning as direct objects can also be analyzed as adverbials. If the prepositional phrase answers the question “what?” about the verb, then the prepositional phrase can be analyzed as the direct object. If the prepositional phrase answers any of the questions “when?,” “where?,” “why?,” or “how?” about the verb or clause, then the prepositional phrase can be analyzed as an adverbial.

References

Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O’Dwyer, Bernard T. 2000. Modern English structures: Form, function, and position. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

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