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Here is a sentence from Chapter Seventeen of Huckleberry Finn. The sentence appears in a grammar worksheet:

When I got to the three log doorsteps I heard them unlocking and unbarring and unbolting.

My English teacher stated that "them" was an indirect object, and unlocking and unbolting was a direct object, as that is what was being directly heard. She states that indirect objects can answer the questions "by whom", referring to the direct object. (The doing could be done by the indirect object.) This doesn't really make sense to me. My first impression was that them was the direct object and the participles unlocking and unbolting were modifying them. So, can an indirect object in a sense do the action of a gerund direct object? Any help is welcome!

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Your English teacher should cut wood but not teach English.

There are two special verb constructions with accusative (= direct object in English) + a verb form. (Actually there are more but I don't want to write a grammar here.)

1 - I saw the bridge explode. (noun + bare infinitive, emphasis on fact).

2 - I saw the bridge exploding (noun + present participle / gerund, it can be either form). In a film this would correspond to a close-up, evoking the scene of the exploding bridge. You can derive such a construction, eg by saying:I saw the bridge at the moment of exploding - or: I saw the bridge, it was exploding.

The verb construction verb + noun + bare infinitive is 2000 years old. It was one of the favourite constructions of Roman authors. And an English teacher should know this construction and not tell fairy tales.

  • Hi, rogermue. Great answer. I fixed a few typos and please take a look. – user140086 Jan 13 '16 at 9:32
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When I got to the three log doorsteps I heard them unlocking and unbarring and unbolting.

Your English teacher is wrong, I’m afraid.

There is no indirect object in your example. "Them" is the direct object of "heard". The participial clause "unlocking and unbarring and unbolting" is not the direct object, not an object at all, though it is a complement of "heard". Such clauses are often called 'catenative', from the Latin word ‘catēna’ meaning chain.

  • Surely unlocking and unbolting are qualifying them are they not? it is like I heard her singing. The direct object is her. So what is singing? – WS2 Jan 12 '16 at 16:26
  • @WS2 Assuming she was singing, then likewise, "singing" is a non-finite clause functioning as catenative complement of "heard". Though the intervening object "her" belongs syntactically in the matrix clause, semantically it's the subject of "singing". – BillJ Jan 12 '16 at 16:31
  • But in I heard singing, singing is a gerund noun isn't it? And if I heard her singing meant I heard the singing of her -then doesn't singing become the direct object ? A bit like I heard John's singing, differs from I heard John singing*. A better grammarian than me needs to pull this all together into an answer. – WS2 Jan 12 '16 at 16:41
  • @ WS2Likewise, "I heard her singing" passivises as "She was heard singing", thus proving that "her" is object of "heard". That's assuming of course that "singing" is a verb in your example. If it's a noun as in "I heard her recital", then "singing" is simply the direct object of "heard", and it's not a catenative construction at all. – BillJ Jan 12 '16 at 16:45
  • Isn't the sense of the sentence I heard them [as they were] unlocking and unbolting? Aren't unlocking and unbolting modifiers of them as WS2 argues? – bib Jan 12 '16 at 17:17

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