Consider the two sentences

John taught himself calculus.

John taught himself.

In the first sentence 'himself' is the indirect object and 'calculus' is the direct object. In the second sentence, does 'himself' become the direct object?

An interesting observation:

If we drop the direct object from

John gave himself a massage.

We get 'John gave himself' which is not a grammatical sentence. Yet, we can drop 'calculus' in the above sentence, and still get a grammatical one. Furthermore, to both trimmed expressions, a listener can respond 'Taught himself what?" and "Gave himself what?" respectively. This is why I'm not sure whether 'himself' in the second sentence is a direct or indirect object.

  • An Indirect object can't exist in a sentence without a direct object, so I'd say yes.
    – Tushar Raj
    May 7, 2015 at 8:07
  • @Area51DetectiveFiction Perhaps, but the reason I asked is because it just seems to me like this is an instance of the direct object being 'dropped' rather than 'himself' changing its grammatical case.
    – user118723
    May 7, 2015 at 8:13
  • Why do you think in John taught himself calculus the direct object is 'calculus' rather than 'himself'? May 27, 2015 at 17:00
  • @DanyloMysak Because in English, the indirect object precedes the direct object in double object constructions. This is a double object construction, and bears exactly the same meaning as "John taught calculus to himself." In the preceding sentence, 'calculus' is unequivocally the direct [Accusative case] object.
    – user118723
    Jun 3, 2015 at 6:10
  • 1
    @user118723 Any source on the statement that the indirect object always precedes the direct one? Jun 3, 2015 at 11:30

2 Answers 2


With the verb 'teach', 'calculus' will always be a direct object and 'himself' will always be an indirect object. What did he teach? Calculus. (Direct object). Whom did he teach? Himself. (Indirect object).

Other examples: "Sam hit me" or "Sam hit the table". Whom/What did she hit? Me, the table. 'whom' and 'what' have the same answer (Direct object). "Valerie told me the truth." What did she tell me? The truth (DO). Whom did she tell? Me (Indirect object). 'whom' and 'what' have a different answer. "Tom acted crazy and started talking to the TV". To whom did he start talking? To the TV (IO). "He washed his clothes" or "He washed himself". What/Whom did he wash? His clothes, himself (Direct object).

Hope this helps.


Indirect or indirect object? Whazat?

The root of the matter is transitiveness of the verb.

But then, we should also ask "transitive verb? whazat?"

So, the root of the matter is the valency of a verb.

Look at the verb, not the object.

Valency 0: an impersonal verb. Verb with zero or an unidentifiable proxy perpetrator.
  • Please stop.
  • It rains. ("It" = unidentifiable proxy perpetrator)
Valency 1: aka intransitive use of a verb by a perpetrator object.
  • He eats.
  • I slept.
  • She thinks.
Valency 2: aka transitive use of a verb by a perpetrator, with one "direct" object.
  • Dogs eat carrots.
  • Horses love dandelions.
  • He brought me.
  • She kissed the baby.
  • He so loved us, he gave himself.
Valency 3: a verb with a direct transitive relationship to one object, and then the composite of {verb + transitive object} being transitive to a 2nd object. i.e., the 2nd object has an indirect transitivity to the verb.
  • She bought him a tie.
  • He gave himself a car.
  • She slaughtered me a cow.
  • She cooked me a meal.
Valency 4: {{{object1 -> verb} -> object2} -> object3} -> object4
  • She kissed him five minutes here.
  • We cooked them a meal there.
Valency 5: {{{{object1 -> verb} -> object2} -> object3} -> object4} -> object5
  • She asked him five minutes for forgiveness here.
  • We cooked them a meal there yesterday.
  • She kissed him his cheek goodbyes three minutes.
In some of these, the verb is capable of having a direct relationship with some of the objects. e.g.,
  • She kissed him.
  • She kissed goodbyes.
  • She kissed his cheek
  • She asked for forgiveness.
Therefore, these are true-transitive multi-valent relationships
  • She(1) gave(v) him(2) {a tie}(3).
  • She(1) kissed(v) him(2) {his cheeks}(3) goodbyes(4).
Obviously these are not direct relationships
  • She kissed here. (because "here" was not the object she kissed)
  • She kissed yesterday. (because ditto)
  • She kissed three minutes. (because ditto)
Whereas, these are not fully transitive multi-valent relationships, where negative valency means indirect or attributive relationships.
  • She(1) kissed(v) him(2) {his cheek}(3) goodbyes(4) {three minutes}(-1) yesterday(-2).

Transitive-dependency analysis is a strategy borrowed from Linguistics, and enhanced by computer science to study the optimisation of the design of relationships of data and information.

  • 2
    Some of your sentences don't appear to be grammatical. In a lot of the others, the "objects" are adjuncts and so have no particular relationship to any particular verb. They are not complements, although they are dependents. The "valency" of the verb is irrelevant to the number of adjuncts used. There's no relationship there. May 7, 2015 at 12:25
  • Which sentence "don't appear grammatical"? May 7, 2015 at 16:19
  • She kissed goodbyes? She kissed him his cheeks? May 7, 2015 at 16:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.