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My friend and I got into a heated discussion about direct objects. While we both understand what they are and how they work, we got stuck on a random sentence that I blurted out. Now, if I say:

  • "Mary baked a cake."

then obviously "cake" is the direct object.

If I were to say:

  • "The cat ran out the door."

then it gets a bit more confusing.

She argues that "door" would be the direct object. I argued that "door" can't be correct since the door did not run, nor did anyone do the running to it. Also, you can not put it into the passive and still retain the meaning:

  • "The door was run (out) by the cat."

versus,

  • "A cake was baked by Mary."

The various answers here and elsewhere on similar questions on the site mainly mention the two points that I mentioned above: firstly, no-one did any running to the door, and secondly there does not seem to be a passive version of the sentence. However, what I need here is a concrete argument to persuade my friend (or for me to be persuaded with). After all, in the sentence "I have a rabbit", I believe rabbit is a direct object. However, no-one is doing any having to the rabbit. And there does not seem to be a good passive version of this sentence either: "A rabbit is had by me". According to the criteria above this would mean that rabbit is not the direct object of that sentence either - but, I believe, it is.

Can anyone help?

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    Clearly you do not understand "what they are and how they work," nor yet that the passive is a voice and not a tense, nor what constitutes a passive, nor that to run and to do the running are the same thing and that both are what the subject of that verb does. – Brian Donovan May 28 '15 at 16:23
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    I.e, you and your girlfriend must be American. It's not your fault you were never taught English grammar; it's slipped off the Anglophone curriculum over the last century and now Americans are taught a catechism of "correctness" instead of the facts, and never study it further. But trying to parse and identify structures in random sentences is in fact complicated stuff; it's like doing engineering knowing only 5th-grade arithmetic. Naturally there are problems. – John Lawler May 28 '15 at 16:48
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Matt E. Эллен May 31 '15 at 13:56
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    @MattE.Эллен Hey, some of my grammar related comments are not over there in that "chat room". Why were they deleted? Do you people not like grammar related info? Here's one of those comments that have disappeared: And then, to complicate things, there's "She ran off [another copy]" where "another copy" is considered to be a direct object. Also, PPs can sometimes be direct objects, e.g. "They won't consider [after Christmas], of course, to be soon enough" where "after Christmas" is considered to be a direct object. <== Now what is wrong with that comment? – F.E. May 31 '15 at 17:39
  • @F.E. I apologise. I thought all comments would be moved to chat, including ones I had already deleted. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 3 '15 at 8:35
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A traditional definition of "direct object" is that it says what receives the action of the verb. The verb gives some action or event, and whatever the direct object refers to is affected by that action or event. By that test, in your example, "the door" is not a direct object, because the door needn't be affected by the cat running out of it.

The existence of a passive is also a pretty good test for direct objects, as you mentioned. If "the door" was a direct object in your example, you'd expect a corresponding passive "The door was run out by the cat". This does not sound very good, but a related form sounds much better: "Which door was run out of by the cat?" However, this can probably not show that "the door" is a direct object, since there is a construction called "prepositional passive" that makes the object of a preposition into a subject, rather than making a direct object into a subject.

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    Maybe it would help the OP to see a concrete instance where "the door" is the direct object in a sentence where "The cat" is the subject. Here's one: "The cat opened the door." – Sven Yargs May 31 '15 at 18:07
  • This is a good answer. @KarenSemple, you should understand that direct objects receive the action of the verb--or rather, the verb acts on the direct object. For example, in the sentence, "Robert threw the ball," you can very easily answer the question, "What did Robert throw?" The direct object in this case is the recipient of the action of the verb. In the case, "The cat ran out the door," can you easily answer the question who or what the cat ran? No! The phrase "out the door" is describing the manner in which the cat ran, but it does not tell you who or what received the action. – R Mac Jun 1 '15 at 15:25
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"to run" is a verb of movement, a verb class of its own, even if dictionaries only have meagre two verb classes (construction classes: transitive or intransitive). Verbs of movement normally have no direct object. Mostly they are followed by a where-to indication (destination). Also description of the course can follow such as to march through the woods/ across the fields. "The cat ran out of the door/AmE out the door" indicates the course the cat took. I would not say "out the door" is an adverb. In any case it is no direct object as it is a word group with a preposition.

It is a specialty of English that verbs of movement (vmov) can be constructed transitive (with a direct object). Then the vmov is followed by a noun/noun substitute as in "Hannibal marched his troops/them over the Alps into Italy". In other languages I know transitive use of vmov is not possible.

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As rogermue indicates in his answer, verbs of movement like run can actually have an object.

So let's introduce an actual object in that sentence:

The cat ran the mice out the door.

I think that it is very clear now that we have:

  • a subject (the cat), which performs the action
  • a verb (ran), which describes the action
  • an object (the mice), who underwent the action
  • an adverbial prepositional clause (out the door), which modifies ran, indicating where (or rather _in which direction) the action took place

If you are in doubt that the mice is an object, you can do your little passive-voice test:

The mice were run out the door by the cat.

Now the question is, when we remove the object, does an adverbial clause that happened to be in the sentence all of a sudden an object?
I see no reason why it would.

I ran a test yesterday.

If I remove the object (clearly, a test) from this sentence, sure, the meaning changes:

I ran yesterday.

But in both cases, yesterday just tells us when the action took place, whether I performed a test or an atletic feat. It does not become an object for any reason; why would an object tell me when something happened, anyway?

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    Devil's advocate here :) Well, it could be argued that out the door has a different status in your ran the mice sentence. There are two reasons. One is that the meaning of the verb is significantly different in the two sentences - so the complementation might be too. The second is that in "I didn't like yesterday" the word yesterday is a direct object even though it's an adjunct in "I didn't like the food yesterday" - which arguably is similar to your examples in terms of adding in and removing NPs. – Araucaria Jun 1 '15 at 19:52
  • True, but yesterday in "I didn't like yesterday_ does not signify when I did the liking. An object does not answer the question "where, when, how, in what direction... does/did the subject perform the action". It does answer the question "who/what does/did the subject <action>?". – oerkelens Jun 2 '15 at 9:11
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    Devil's Advocate again :) How about I visited Berlin in which Berlin explains where you did something and there is a corresponding question to Where did the cat run?, namely Where did you visit? (Oh +1 btw) – Araucaria Jun 2 '15 at 10:15
  • @Araucaria: The devil has good representation :P In "I visited Berlin", Berlin coincidentally happens to be a place (as happens with things you visit) but it does not say where I visited. The question "Where did you visit?" sounds wrong because visit needs an object. If I visit the opera house in Paris, you can ask where did you visit the opera house? (Paris) or what did you visit? (opera house) but where did you visit? doesn't sound grammatical. – oerkelens Jun 2 '15 at 11:27
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There is no object in that sentence. The prepositional phrase "out the door" is an adverb describing ran.

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There is no direct object in the sentence "The cat ran out the door," "out the door" is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverb. If you change the sentence to read "The cat ran the cat out the door," you do get a direct object, but you then change the meaning of the sentence. The cat then would be willing itself to chase itself out the room.

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I think you are right.

'out of the door' seems like an adverb.

If it was 'the cat ran a race' then 'a race' would be the object.

I also think you're right about the cat being an object. Often people say in a sentence like that the verb is intransitive - it has no object. But others have long pointed out that the cat ran itself out of the door.

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    Perhaps I misunderstand you, but in "The cat ran out the door" "cat" is the subject, the acting part. – rogermue May 28 '15 at 19:04
  • yeah, you're right. But I mean it's also the object if you take the view that there are no intransitive verbs. The cat ran the cat out of the door. – user69418 May 28 '15 at 19:12
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    In my innocence I am wondering whether "run out the door" is confusing because it is actually a contraction. When we run out the door, we are not acting upon the door, object-wise, but running through a space where the door ought to be but presently isn't. In turn this is because we use the same word for the route the door is closing off and for the thingy that does the closing. Bet it confuses the Martians. – David Pugh May 28 '15 at 19:22
  • I think you're right about this! For sure, 'the door' functions as 'the doorway' and I think for sure we can consider this an object! – user69418 May 29 '15 at 16:40
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    @David: I think usage prevalence for fell off {of} the table argues strongly against the idea that these forms are "contractions" of longer versions that (originally?) required of. – FumbleFingers May 30 '15 at 17:22

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