In languages which distinguish the accusative and dative cases, it is clear from the actual usage whether a divalent verb takes a direct or indirect object. For example, the German eat takes a direct object ("ich esse ihn"), while help takes an indirect object ("ich helfe ihm").

How do you know what kind of object an English verb takes? Which case is the object pronoun in the phrase "I help him"?

Edit: I'm looking for a reason to say that it, without doubt, is an accusative or dative pronoun. The reason for the German example is that the English accusative and dative pronouns are degenerate, and it therefore is easy to claim something -- you can't disprove it with an example.

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    Regarding your edit: are you really looking to figure out if it's an accusative or dative pronoun (I would argue that it's neither (or both)), or are you trying to determine whether the objective pronoun is being used as an indirect or direct object? – Dusty Apr 26 '11 at 21:52
  • If you really get a reason to decide one way or the other "without doubt", then get a paper written-- there's currently no consensus on this among scholars. – Neil Coffey Apr 27 '11 at 1:02
  • @Dusty: I thought those two questions were equivalent, i.e. that an direct/indirect pronoun always is in accusative/dative form. If they're not, feel free to explain and edit my question to make more sense. – user4727 Apr 27 '11 at 6:49
  • @Neil: That's interesting, do you know of any papers on this debate? – user4727 Apr 27 '11 at 6:51

English doesn't really have a concept of direct versus indirect object in the same way.

To answer the easy part of the question: both eat and help take direct objects in English.

While there are some verbs (which I'll come to next) that some people analyse as taking both a direct and indirect object, for the most part English uses prepositions where other languages might use a dative or indirect object - so we say things like

I said "hello" to him.

I did the washing for him.

I mentioned your name to her.

Some verbs (such as tell, hand, give, show) can express two objects without using a preposition. It is possible to call one of these objects direct and the other indirect (and indeed people often do - not least because it's useful to have names to distinguish the two objects), but in many ways it is better to analyse them as being ditransitive (that is, taking two direct objects). For example:

I told ¹him ²the news.

I handed ¹her ²the book.

I gave ¹them ²a cheese and pickle sandwich.

I showed ¹you ²the way to use the chainsaw.

That saved ¹me ²a fortune.

These can usually also be expressed with a preposition:

I told ²the news ¹to him.

I handed ²the book ¹to her.

I gave ²a cheese and pickle sandwich ¹to them.

I showed ²the house ¹to you.

That saved ²a fortune ¹for me.

In the case without prepositions, the so-called "indirect" object is generally the one that comes first (though there are dialects in which saying I gave it you is correct for I gave it to you, and similarly for the other verbs).

In the case where these verbs are used with a single object, it is usually understood as the indirect object (the one that would naturally follow the verb even if there were two objects), but this is not grammatical for some verbs, and for other verbs what follows is a direct object (sometimes with a different meaning):

I told him. (single object "indirect")

*I handed her. (ungrammatical)

*I gave them. (ungrammatical)

I showed you. (single object "indirect")

That saved me. (grammatical, but with different meaning)

He threw me the ball. / He threw the ball (single object is "direct")

He brought me a turnip. / He brought a turnip (single object is "direct") / He brought me. (grammatical, but with different meaning)

Why consider both objects as direct objects? One reason is that there is no distinction in object pronouns; "them" is used in both the "direct" and "indirect" positions. English simply does not have a concept of "dative", even in pronouns (which retain more case distinctions than standard nouns). For another: in languages that have true indirect objects, it is not usually possible to transform the sentence into the passive voice with the indirect object as subject, at least not without some sort of rephrasing. This is not true with English, since either object can, in most cases, become the subject of a passive:

He was told the news by me. / The news was told to him by me.

The book was handed to her by me. / She was handed the book by me.

A sandwich was given to them by me. / They were given a sandwich by me.

?I was saved a fortune by that. (questionable) / A fortune was saved for me by that. (grammatical, but with a slightly different meaning)

So, finally, to address your last two questions:

How do you know what kind of object an English verb takes? It may take zero, one or two direct objects, and possibly other complements with prepositions - but you have to learn all of these along with the meaning of the verb; there's no easy way out I'm afraid.

Which case is the object pronoun in the phrase "I help him"? The word him here is the objective case - and indeed him always is; there is no concept of direct or indirect object pronouns.

  • +1 Two remarks: 1. In Greek, the secondary complement of a verb can become subject if the sentence is changed into passive even with dative (and genitive) complements, just as in English; and the cases are very clearly marked, including dative v. accusative. So pisteuô autôi ("I trust/believe him [dative]") could be changed into ho tyrannos pisteuetai ("the monarch [nominative] is trusted/believed"). 2. Another test might be: could you replace the object (x) with to x or for x? If yes, it is probably an indirect object to those who distinguish direct and indirect objects. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Apr 26 '11 at 22:49
  • +1 Great answer. The only thing I take issue with is “In the case where these verbs are used with a single object, it is almost always understood as the indirect object.” This seems to vary from verb to verb. Many verbs are understood the other way: I brought them sandwiches / I brought sandwiches; I offered him $5 / I offered $5; He tossed me the ball / He tossed the ball. – Jason Orendorff Apr 26 '11 at 23:50
  • Thanks. As to your answer to the specific question, I was wondering which whether him is in accusative or dative case. Are you saying that it is a pointless question because those cases are degenerate in English? – user4727 Apr 27 '11 at 6:46
  • @Jason: Good point! I have updated the answer. – psmears Apr 27 '11 at 9:28
  • @Cerberus: Interesting... I knew when I wrote that someone would come up with a counterexample (hence the "usually"), so thank you :) Does this apply to all verbs, or just πιστευω? I notice Liddle & Scott gloss passive use of this verb explicitly, whereas if it were a common use of the passive I might not expect them to... so for example to say "I was helped" can I transform ὁ Κερβερος βοηθει ἐμοι to βοηθouμαι (or whatever the right verb forms are, it's been a long time!) – psmears Apr 27 '11 at 9:46

There is only a slight grammatical distinction between direct and indirect objects in English. Indirect objects can’t be moved around in a sentence quite as freely.

He asked if I bought Kaitlin presents. (ok)

He asked what I bought Kaitlin. (DO preposed - ok)

He asked who I bought presents. (IO preposed - wrong)

I gave her a headache. (ok)

[The headache I gave her] hasn’t gone away. (DO preposed - ok)

[The woman I gave a headache] hasn’t gone away. (IO preposed - iffy)

But there is no such distinction between eat and help:

[The pancakes I ate] were pretty good. (single object preposed - ok)

[The student I helped] was pretty good. (single object preposed - ok)

So grammatically, there is simply no grammatical distinction to be made here. We say that both eat and help take a direct object.

The same is true about verbs like tell that can take a single object with either meaning:

[The secrets I told] weren’t pretty. (single object preposed - ok)

[The man I told] wasn’t pretty. (single object preposed - ok)

Regardless of the semantic role of the single object, it’s syntactically a direct object.

Update — I completely rewrote this after reading the bits of CGEL about indirect objects (chapter 4, §4).

  • Can you back that statement up? Why would it be so? – user4727 Apr 26 '11 at 20:39
  • The case of a direct object is accusative. – compman Apr 26 '11 at 20:45
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    The problem with citing internet authorities on matters of grammar is that they’re wrong even more often than I am. ;-) – Jason Orendorff Apr 26 '11 at 21:00
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    Note that if you take the traditional view that a to prepositional phrase is an indirect object, then indirect objects so marked do occur in clauses with no direct object: He gives to the poor. I consider these to be intransitive uses. – Jason Orendorff Apr 26 '11 at 21:20
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    What about the following? "Who told Sue about her father's death?" "I told her" – Dusty Apr 26 '11 at 21:43

According to http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/help#Verb, help can be a transitive verb or an intransitive verb, so "him" would be accusative case.


  • Why do you think that a transitive verb only takes a direct object? – user4727 Apr 26 '11 at 20:53
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    Wouldn't a transitive verb have to take a direct object, though? According to Jason, if you only have one object, it's the direction object. – compman Apr 26 '11 at 20:54
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    While I agree that help can be either transitive or intransitive and that 'him' would fall in the accusative case, it's unclear to me how the former implies the latter. – Dusty Apr 26 '11 at 20:55
  • @Dusty: If a transitive verb has an object, that object must be the direct object; it won't be the indirect object (at least if Jason is right on that count). – compman Apr 26 '11 at 21:00
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    @user: What I'm looking for is something to support that statement. – user4727 Apr 26 '11 at 21:00

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