Please consider:
"... the watch that my uncle had given me."

  • "my uncle" is the subject.
  • "had given" is the main verb (past perfect).


  • "me" is an indirect object? or should it really be "had given to me" ? Either is ok, I think.
  • "that" is a relative pronoun? the antecedent is "the watch" ?
  • "the watch / (that)" must be the direct object of "had given" , so how can it precede "had given" ? Given the English sentence structure rules that I am aware of, I've no clue how to explain the placement of the direct object.

I'm a native speaker who teaches my friends by using sentence diagraming. I need some help. thanks.

sorry. I should not have called " has given " the "main" verb. full sentence:

(full sentence): "I lost the watch that my uncle had given me."
(1) "me" does not effect the grammar, so I'll drop it.
(2) "that" sounds like a conjunction (not a relative pronoun), and it is natural in English to drop "that" when it is a conjunction. This does not change the grammar.

(stripped down sentence) "I lost the watch my uncle had given."

  1. can "watch" really be the direct object of two verb???
  2. or, is "that" really a relative pronoun. If so, then "that" can be the direct object of "had given" and "watch" can be the direct object of "lost" . Further, dropping "that" , even though it sounds natural, creates an incorrect grammatical structure.
  • 1
    That's the problem with diagramming. It doesn't always represent what you want to. the watch that my uncle had given me is a noun phrase modified by a relative clause. The relative pronoun functions as the direct object of the relative clause, but of course it's been moved to the beginning of the clause, like all relative pronouns. So how you handle it depends on the theory of diagramming you're using, and whether it sposta represent word order or grammatical relations. A tree structure can do both, but sentence diagramming is only good up to about age 12. After that they know too much. May 22, 2015 at 4:26
  • @JohnLawler There is nothing wrong with sentence diagramming. Tree structures are shit, however. Not once have I seen a tree structure designate what a word is functioning as (e.g., the noun functioning as subject vs. subject complement). Sep 19, 2015 at 15:03
  • @JasperLocke: That's not what most trees are sposta do. Most trees are constituent trees; they show constituent relations but not things like subject or object, directly. There are trees, however, in Relational Grammar and other theories, that start off with Su, DO, and IO as primary nodes and goes from there. Very handy for rules like Passive and Dative Movement, which are very easy to state that way, but much more complex using only constituents. Both are necessary; as are semantic, pragmatic, and phonological structures -- all are present, and all contribute to understanding. Sep 19, 2015 at 18:49

4 Answers 4


There is nothing preventing the direct object of a verb from preceding it in general; however, a direct object must follow the verb in the main clause of a sentence. Since

that my uncle had given me

is not the main (independent) clause of the sentence, it is perfectly acceptable for the direct object of give to appear before the verb.

the English sentence structure rules that I am aware of

Indeed, rules is the direct object of to be aware of, if we count that as a single verb (which is probably justified since this is the only construction involving 'being aware').

Linguistics sidenote:

Actually, a common analysis of English states that clauses like the one you have listed above do have the object of the verb after it, as in:

the watch that my uncle had given me (the watch)

The second instance of the watch is not pronounced in the English grammar and so doesn't appear in the sentence.


Here's one theory of this construction. The relative clause, which modifies "watch", is introduced by "that" and contains a relative pronoun "which", understood to refer to the watch being referred to. The "which" is then deleted.

watch [ that [S my uncle had given me which ] ]
watch [ that [S my uncle had given me __ ] ]

Another, somewhat less popular, analysis is to make "that" a relative pronoun.


After a noun you can add a relative clause and the relative pronoun who, which, that) can take any case that is possible (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative or preposition + accusative). That is the normal thing in all languages I know, and I don't see anything astonishing in it.

  • 1 I lost the watch that was a present of my uncle.

Here watch is object to "lost" and relative that is nominative.

  • 2 This is the watch, (that) my uncle gave to me.

Here watch is nom., and that acc.

I doubt that digrams will help to make such things clear.

You analyse "the watch that my uncle had given me" as if it were a sentence, but it is no sentence, it is only a noun group. The noun watch with definite article and a relative clause.


I have never needed or used the usual diagrams, they are useless for me. But if I had to make up a diagram I would do it this way.

Noun phrase: the watch that my uncle gave me

the watch: def. article, noun

that my uncle gave me: relative clause

Relative clause:

that: relative pronoun (accusative/object form)

my uncle: subject

gave: verb (past tense)

me: indirect object

I have to do it this way, everything else takes too much time.


"that my uncle had given to me ____" is a relative clause. The words 'that' and/or 'to' can be left out (reduced). The '____' is a trace (per Noam Chomsky) that is equal to whatever noun phrase came before the 'that'. In your sentence, 'the watch' is the direct object of the main verb 'lost', and it is also the direct object (via the trace) of the relative clause.

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