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Everywhere I look online, people seem to say the same thing: "A sentence with an indirect object must have a direct object." Every case of confusion I've seen about this rule has only involved examples where direct objects are omitted but still implied.

However, consider the following sentence:

Jim ran to the store.

As I understand it, here ran is intransitive and therefore has no direct object; and to the store is a prepositional phrase, making store the indirect object of ran. Therefore this sentence contains an indirect object and no direct object.

Is this observation correct? If so, why do so many people insist that sentences cannot have indirect objects without direct objects?

  • Alas, as the answers show, the concepts of direct object and indirect object are fraught with disagreement. The problem is confusing generalizations with observations. In general, indirect objects are recipient NPs in transfer verbs live give or tell. But once there's a construction, it's available for other uses, in other contexts. The more interesting question is why almost all IOs are receivers, while DOs vary widely in semantic role, dependent mostly on the verb class and the context. – John Lawler Nov 14 '17 at 17:40

10 Answers 10

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It can be argued that with to tell, which is normally a bitransitive verb taking both sorts of objects as in to tell someone something, can exist with just an indirect object alone.

  • Have you told him yet?

There is an unspoken “something” that is being alluded to here, and that thing unsaid is the direct object, with the person receiving the information being in the indirect object position.

However, this analysis is not universally accepted. Others view this particular situation as one where the indirect object has passed to a direct one. The OED seems to be one of these; the following citation is taken from its entry for the verb tell:

trans. to tell a person (the originally indirect or dative personal object becoming the direct).

Note the parenthetical portion. They have stopped calling it an indirect object there. It’s the only object in sight, so it “must” be a direct one. I guess.

In other languages that have stronger case systems, this sort of use can take an indirect object by itself, and when it does, it is still marked in the dative’s indirect object case. So for example, the Spanish for tell me it is dímelo; if you wanted to add and tell her too while you’re at it, you would have to say dile to mean “tell her” using the dative enclitic pronoun le. You cannot use the accusative enclitic pronoun la, because it is still indirect. So they in Spanish do not reanalyse the remaining object as a direct one. It stays dative in their minds. It is that line of reasoning that leaves it as an indirect object for some English grammarians, too.

Now, you can construct that same situation in English, but to do so you have to go back to when English was what for us today was a foreign language. A thousand years ago when English had a more robust case system, you sometimes had certain verbs that took only a dative case pronoun for their complement without an accusative case one to go along with it. So one could (perhaps) say they only took an indirect object. However, most of the time we translate those uses from Old English and dative objects into regular direct objects today so as not to confuse people.

However, one rare place where that still occurs is in the frozen relic verbs meseem and methink, once spelled me seems and me thinks (or me thought and so on). There the Old English dative me, which in those expressions came before the actual verb, became stuck when it fossilized. We no longer think of it as being an indirect object. But it really is an isolated dative, because it is the very sort of “to/for me” kind of “dative of interest” you find in modern expressions like cry me a river or sing me a song. So meseems just means it seems to me. That’s why the singular is meseems, as in Meseems unlikely that he shall pursue us meaning it seems unlikely to me.

But those are just curiosities from the museum case, not productive uses. If you abbreviate sing me a song to sing me, folks are going to think that use of me has switched to a direct object use from an indirect object one, and wonder what it is you really meant by that.

  • An interesting discussion on transitive verbs, but it leaves the seemingly intransitive nature of "ran" in my example unaddressed. Unless you're suggesting there's some kind of implied direct object in my example, making the verb transitive? – talrnu Oct 20 '14 at 14:30
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There seems to be some confusion about what an indirect object is.

The OP has probably learned that in a sentence like Thomas gave Sue a book, Sue is the indirect object. So far so good. The sentence is equivalent to Thomas gave a book to Sue, so the OP goes on to assume (and a good English instructor will easily make this mistake) that to Sue is also an indirect object. Here is the wrong turn. Sue is the recipient in both cases, but recipient is a meaning category, while direct object is a grammatical category.

If two clauses have the same or very similar meanings, it doesn't mean that all of the corresponding arguments are of the same grammatical category (think of "argument" as a participant in an event; or if you are a computer programmer, think of verbs as functions and other parts of the clause as arguments).

Languages have hundreds or thousands of constructions, each with particular grammatical properties. The constructions have partially overlapping meaning properties. This permits nuance of expression. Generally you will have to recognize a grammatical structure separate from the meaning. Coincidence in meaning should not be taken to imply coincidence in grammatical structure.

For reference, I've quoted relevant parts of Huddleston & Pullum's (2002) treatment (Chapter 4, §§4, 4.3) below. You can get the student edition of the book more cheaply (the passage suggests that the answer to the OP's clause is yes, but only in a "noncanonical" clause).

Of the two types of object, the direct object (Od) occurs in both monotransitive and ditransitive clauses, whereas the indirect object (Oi) occurs in canonical clauses only in ditransitives.

At the general level, the direct object may be defined as a grammatically distinct element of clause structure which in canonical agent--patient clauses expresses the patient role. Direct object arguments are associated with a wide range of semantic roles, but in other canonical clauses than those expressing agent--patient situations, the direct object has the same grammatical properties as the NP expressing the patient in agent--patient clauses.

The general definition of indirect object is that it is a distinct element of clause structure characteristically associated with the semantic role of recipient. Again this is not the only role we find (though the range is much narrower than with the direct object), but indirect objects behave grammatically like the NP expressing the recipient with verbs like give, lend, offer, sell.

The terms direct and indirect are based on the idea that in ditransitive clauses the Od argument is more directly affected or involved in the process than the Oi argument. In I gave Kim the key, for example, it is the key that is actually transferred, while Kim is involved only as an endpoint in the transfer. Characteristically the Od in ditransitives is obligatory while the Oi is omissible, as in He lent (them) his car, She offered (us) $400 for it, and it is plausible to see this is as reflecting a more direct involvement, a greater centrality on the part of the Od argument.

...

Most ditransitive clauses have alternants with a single object and a PP complement with to or for as head...

(a.i) I sent Sue a copy. ~ (b.i) I sent a copy to Sue.
(a.ii) I ordered Sue a copy. ~ (b.ii) I ordered a copy for Sue.

...it is only the [a] examples that we analyse as ditransitive, as double-object constructions. In [b] the PP to/for Sue is not an indirect object, not an object at all, having none of the properties outlined in §4.1 above, and the NP Sue is of course an oblique, hence not a possible object of the verb.

To explain better the remark about "canonical" clauses: Huddleston & Pullum are saying that for the most part you don't speak of an "indirect object" unless the sentence has two non-subject arguments. That's because English is not very permissive about omitting arguments. If a verb sense requires certain arguments, they normally cannot be omitted entirely. But suppose you have a verb which is normally ditransitive, and it has a sense requiring only one argument, marked like an indirect object (a prepositional phrase)? In that case the sense would normally be classified as extended intransitive rather than ditransitive. (e.g., get in The cat got under the table). So you are kind of blocked from finding such examples.

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    Why monotransitive and ditransitive instead of unitransitive and bitransitive? – tchrist Oct 18 '14 at 16:19
  • I'm really glad that I haven't such a grammar. – rogermue Oct 18 '14 at 17:01
  • @tchrist I don't know why the authors chose those terms. The choice of terminology is arbitrary. – jlovegren Oct 18 '14 at 17:09
  • @rogermue it's very expensive so don't buy it if you don't want it! – jlovegren Oct 18 '14 at 17:10
  • I wouldn't think of buying such a grammar. – rogermue Oct 18 '14 at 17:16
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Your sentence doesn't include an indirect object so it doesn't prove the rule wrong. Instead, you just have an adjunct that happens to use the preposition to which is probably why you've confused it for an indirect object.

That said, there is no such restriction. It's really not hard to find a verb and construct a sentence like the following:

  • She readV.I. to meIO last night.
  • They called outV.I. to the boyIO hoping to find him.
  • I spokeV.I. to my friendsIO last night..

All are intransitive verbs (though they do have transitive usages too).

Other verbs (like copulas and copula-esque verbs) can readily take indirect objects, but won't have direct objects (instead they'll have predicative nominative/adjectives).

  • It’s kind of funny to call prepositions plus propositional objects “indirect objects”. Give me it has an indirect object by word order, but Give it to me needs a preposition. I’m not really sure those count. – tchrist Oct 18 '14 at 5:10
  • @tchrist That's just how English is with ditransitives. Both He gave me it and He gave it to me have the same subject, verb, and objects which can be shown in that both end up with identical passives: It was given to me (by him) or I was given it (by him). If the me in to me wasn't the IO, than I was given it (by him) wouldn't be an equivalent passive. Similarly in Spanish, in le di algo and di algo a Juan, both le and a Juan are considered “complementos indirectos” (IOs) but only le is an “pronombre átono indirecto” (IO pronoun). – guifa Oct 18 '14 at 5:34
  • Ok, I guess I’ll give that one to you — and my upvote. I still question people analysing prepositional phrases’ objects as somehow counting as indirect objects even when attached to intransitive verbs, but that was not your argument. – tchrist Oct 18 '14 at 14:30
  • In your examples, the prepositional phrases are marked as IO (Indirect Object, right?), but you're saying the prepositional phrase in my example is not an indirect object. Then, you simply state that intransitive verbs can have indirect objects, but don't provide much explanation of why so many people explicitly insist that's illegal (which is really what my question is asking). I'd be more inclined to accept this answer if these points were cleared up. – talrnu Oct 20 '14 at 14:35
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No. The example you provided is not one of an indirect object.

In 'He gave the book to me', 'me' is the indirect object, and 'book' is the direct object.

  • Your example is correct, because gave is transitive, and therefore requries a direct object. In my example, ran is intransitive, and therefore must have no direct object. Would you explain specifically how store is not an indirect object in the example I gave? – talrnu Oct 18 '14 at 2:07
  • I think you need a transitive verb to have a direct object and an indirect object. You cannot have an indirect object without a direct object and a transitive verb. 'Run' is not a transitive verb in your example. – Ornello Oct 18 '14 at 2:14
  • You can have a direct object without an indirect object, but you must have a direct object to have an indirect object. – Ornello Oct 18 '14 at 2:22
  • @talrnu An Object, Direct or Indirect, is a sort of Complement of the verb - it 'completes' the sense of the verb. I ran can stand on its own - to the store or away from him are Adjuncts which supplement the content. Note, too, that an Indirect Object can be expressed without a preposition - I gave him $100 - to him is merely an alternate way of expressing the Complement. But I ran store is meaningless. Store is the Object only of the preposition, not of the verb. – StoneyB Oct 18 '14 at 3:02
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He ran to the store

"to the store" is a where-to indication and no object. After a direct object you ask with "whom/what" and after an indirect object you ask with "to what person/thing". Verbs of movement have no object but an adverbial sentence part, in our case a where-to indication. There is no action directed from a subject to an object that receives the action.

  • So a true indirect object only exists if it modifies a [transitive verb] + [direct object] combination, and is otherwise merely an adverbial phrase when modifying an intransitive verb? – talrnu Oct 20 '14 at 14:22
  • I don 't really understand your problem. Word groups that indicate to what place/from what place/at what time/how long etc are clearly different from an indication of the person something is destined to. – rogermue Oct 20 '14 at 15:17
  • "Jim carried money to the store." is an example of how a "where-to" indicator, as you call it, serves as an indirect object, is it not? I'm not sure locations are excluded from serving as indirect objects. – talrnu Oct 20 '14 at 15:25
  • Do you ask where to or to whom? – rogermue Oct 20 '14 at 15:35
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I thought to cite a grammar reference as a pithy answer to your question.

Source: p 127, If I Was You..., by Lauren Sussman, 2014

Not all sentences that have direct objects will have an indirect object or an object complement. ... Also, remember that if a sentence doesn’t have a direct object, it can’t have an object complement or an indirect object.

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In the sentence--"He ran to the store."--He is the subject, ran is the intransitive verb, and to the store is the prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb and answering the question WHERE? about ran: Ran where? Ran to the store.

Store is the object of the preposition to; the object of the preposition will not be the indirect object.

In this next sentence--"He threw me the ball."--the indirect object is me. We could modify the sentence to say, "He threw to me the ball." or, "He threw the ball to me." In these examples, me is the object of the preposition and no longer the indirect object.

The above highlighted sentences in essence say the same thing, but they have a transitive verb and therefore can have a direct object and indirect object (or the indirect object can be replaced with a prepositional phrase). The original sentence in question with an intransitive verb ("He ran to the store.") does not have an indirect object.

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Most of these answers only briefly or vaguely touch on the core of the correct answer: intransitive verbs simply have no object at all. You would only call some word an indirect object if it fits into a grammatical structure that has a component defined as an indirect object. A prepositional phrase contains a transitive verb's indirect object, but for intransitive verbs such a phrase is simply a modifier on the verb.

In other words, it doesn't make sense to talk about objects in the context of intransitive verbs, any more than it would make sense to talk about gas mileage in the context of bicycling. Both cars and bikes can carry gasoline, sure, but only a car carries it to fuel propulsion (and therefore can be discussed in terms of fuel efficiency), while the fact that a byciclist might be carrying it is merely coincidence and has nothing to do with their vehicle's power source.

This explains why so many sources I've found online assert you can't have an indirect object without an object: it's simply the nature of contexts in which indirect objects have a place. Every grammatical structure with an indirect object component also has a direct object component. The notion of an indirect object doesn't exist in isolation outside of these structures.

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There may be a few cases in which a sentence can have an indirect object without a direct object. One case comes immediately to mind: "He lied to me." "Me" is an indirect object here. "Lie" does not take a direct object. Another test in this case is that this indirect object can be used as the subject of a passive voice sentence, namely, "I was lied to (by him)." It is interesting though that "lied" requires "to" in this case.

  • Welcome to Stackexchange! Quick note - if the question already has several answers (in this case 9 others), an accepted answer, and was a long time ago (2 years, 8 months), we assume that the issue is solved. – marcellothearcane Jun 20 '17 at 11:51
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No, your observation was not correct. The term "direct object" is used in relation to verbs. In your sentence, "ran" is the verb, "Jim" is the subject of the verb "ran" and "to the store" is an adverbial complement of the verb "ran". In your sentence "Jim ran to the store", the verb "ran" has no object, either direct or indirect.

What does have an object, however, is the preposition "to" and its object is "the store"; but it can not be construed as a direct object.

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