For the following sentence, I can identify "This car" as the direct object of the verb "sell".

Peter wants to sell this car.

However, if the sentence is changed as follows, does the verb "sell" still have direct object?

This is the car that Peter wants to sell.

2 Answers 2


Yes, the verb "sell" in the relative clause does have a direct object. :)

Let me work off the previous poster's answer. I'll insert an anaphoric gap into the example to show the two versions that were discussed earlier:

  • 1.) This is the car(i) [ that(i) Peter wants to sell _(i) ].

  • 2.) This is the car(i) [ that Peter wants to sell _(i) ].

Version #1 is the somewhat traditional approach, where the relative pronoun "that" is directly linked to the antecedent "car". And then that "that" is linked to the gap "_(i)".

In version #2, the gap "_(i)" is directly linked to the antecedent "car". And the word "that" has no semantic meaning : it is used merely as a syntactic marker to help identify the beginning of this relative clause.

Your relative clause has the meaning of "Peter wants to sell the car", but the clause is missing the expression "the car" (which has the syntactic function of direct object within the "sell" subordinate clause). That is what makes a relative clause a relative clause. That is: the relative clause is explicitly missing something (or else has a relativized word to represent that missing something), something that is there in the semantic meaning of that clause but it is physically missing. If that physically missing expression were there, then it wouldn't be a relative clause.

Summary: In your example, the slot of direct object (of your "sell" verb) in your relative clause happens to be an anaphoric gap. Traditional grammar considers that the (direct object) gap is linked to a pronoun "that" which is then linked to the antecedent "car" (or that the pronoun "that" is the direct object which happened to be fronted). Some modern grammars do away with that intermediate link, and they merely link the (direct object) gap directly to the antecedent.

  • "That is: the relative clause is explicitly missing something ... If that physically missing expression were there, then it wouldn't be a relative clause." -- What is the missing something in sentences with relative clauses like "He is the one who's buying this red car"? Also, can you tell me whether the relativized element can have other syntactic functions in the relative clause besides object of the verb, object of preposition, and subject? Feb 17, 2020 at 12:59

Sell in your example does have a direct object: a relative pronoun. Whether this object is visible in the sentence is a matter of opinion. Depending on your linguistics school of choice, there are two major ways to look at this:

  1. The relative pronoun is that, and that is simply the direct object, explicitly manifest, but available for deletion, as in “This is the car Peter wants to sell”. In that version, the direct object is still there underlyingly, and it is still a relative pronoun, but it is not there on the surface, so sell has no visible direct object.

  2. that is a kind of complementiviser, basically a word similar to a conjunction: it marks that what follows is some kind of complement in the sentence, but has no ‘real’ function otherwise. It does not map to any phrasal constituent. The direct object is then a mandatorily deleted relative pronoun (‘which’ in this case), and the sentence has no visible direct object. Just like the true conjunction ‘that’, the complementiviser is also available for deletion.

Which of these two approaches you choose to believe or prefer is entirely up to you.

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