Direct Objects in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In the sentence "Jake baked a cake," the cake would be the direct object. Hugh Whitaker/Cultura/Getty Images

In English grammar, a direct object is a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that identifies what or who receives the action of a transitive verb in a clause or sentence.

Typically (but not always), the subject of a clause performs an action, and the direct object is acted upon by the subject: Jake [subject] baked [transitive verb] a cake [direct object]. If a clause also contains an indirect object, the indirect object usually appears between the verb and the direct object: Jake [subject] baked [transitive verb] Kate [indirect object] a cake [direct object].

When pronouns function as direct objects, they customarily take the form of the objective case. The objective forms of English pronouns are me, us, you, him, her, it, them, whom and whomever. (Note that you and it have the same forms in the subjective case.)

Examples and Observations

  • "She closed the carton carefully. First she kissed her father, then she kissed her mother. Then she opened the lid again, lifted the pig out, and held it against her cheek."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper & Brothers, 1952)
  • "Momma opened boxes of crispy crackers . . .. I sliced onions, and Bailey opened two or even three cans of sardines."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."
    (George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946)
  • "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
    (Joan Didion, The White Album. Simon & Schuster, 1979)
  • "You can't test courage cautiously."
    (Annie Dillard, An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987)
  • "[The developers] bulldozed the banks to fill in the bottom, and landscaped the flow of water that remained."
    (Edward Hoagland, "The Courage of Turtles." The Village Voice, December 12, 1968)
  • In a single afternoon, my pet terrier killed two rats and a snake.
  • Compound Direct Objects
    "[A] verb may have more than one direct object, called a compound direct object. If a sentence contains a compound direct object, asking Whom? or What? after the action verb will give you two or more answers.
    Buzz Aldrin explored the moon and outer space.
    He copiloted Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 in space.
    In the second example, space is the object of the preposition in. It is not a direct object."
    (Prentice Hall Writing and Grammar: Communication in Action. Prentice Hall, 2001)
  • Active and Passive Clauses
    "Direct objects are always noun phrases (or their equivalents, e.g., nominal clauses). The direct object of an active clause can typically become the subject of a passive clause:
    Everybody hated the teacher.
    (active: the teacher is direct object)

    The teacher was hated by everybody.
    (passive: the teacher is subject)"
    (Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Word Order in Clauses With Both Direct Objects and Indirect Objects
    "In English clauses with both a direct and an indirect object, there are two common orders of these phrases. If the indirect object is marked by a preposition (usually to), the direct object comes immediately after the verb, and the phrase with the indirect object comes after that, as in I sent a letter to my love, where a letter is the direct object of sent. In the alternative order, there is no preposition, and the direct object is the second of the two noun phrases, as in I sent my love a letter (where a letter is still the direct object of sent)."
    (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)
  • Implied Direct Objects in Idioms
    "Some transitive phrasal verbs do not use their direct object when the direct object is implied in the meaning of the idiom. For example, with the phrasal verb pull over (to move a vehicle out of the flow of traffic, and slow down or stop), it's not necessary to say 'I pulled the car over' because the car is implied by the idiom. You can simply say 'I pulled over.' However, . . . a direct object is required when the action is directed at someone else. For example, when police officers direct someone to pull a vehicle off the road and stop, a direct object is required: the officer pulls over someone."
    (Gail Brenner, Webster's New World American Idioms Handbook. Wiley, 2003)
  • Transformations
    "The most exciting innovation of early generative grammar [was] derivational rules (or transformations): rules that take a fully formed structure and change some aspect of it. Sentence pairs like (7) provide a simple illustration:
    (7a) Dave really disliked that movie.
    (7b) That movie, Dave really disliked.
    These two sentences mean essentially the same, with only perhaps a difference in emphasis. (7a) displays a more 'basic' order: the thing that is disliked is in the 'normal' direct object position. By contrast, in (7b), disliked is not followed by an object, as it should be, and that movie is in a curious position before the subject. So, the proposal goes, the grammar can capture the similarity between (7a) and (7b) by saying that (7b) in fact is not generated by the formation rules. Rather, it has an 'underlying form' that is more or less identical to (7a) and that is generated by the formation rules. However, 'after' the formation rules create the underlying form, a derivational rule moves that movie to the front of the sentence to create the surface form."
    (Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • The Lighter Side of Direct Objects
    - "Dinsdale, he was a nice boy. He nailed my head to a coffee table."
    (Monty Python)

    - "I could catch a monkey. If I was starving I could. I’d make poison darts out of the poison of the deadly frogs. One milligram of that poison can kill a monkey."
    (Mackenzie Crook as Gareth in "Work Experience." The Office, 2001)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Objects in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, September 8). Direct Objects in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Objects in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 21, 2017).