I want to clear this matter up once and for all. Even though I have already asked a few questions on the site related to the nominative case and the accusative case, I still get confused by one particular kind of example.

Let's take a simple sentence to consider my problem:

  1. The book is on the desk.

According to the grammar book I am quoting from in the sentence I've just cited, desk is in the accusative case governed by the preposition on.

In the next exercise, there is a question which asks to find the object in this sentence:-

  1. The boy stood on a burning desk.

I applied the same logic and thought that here burning desk must be the direct object since, as previously noted, it is in the accusative case governed by the preposition on.

But the book says that this sentence doesn't possess a direct object!

Is it because being in accusative case is different from forming a direct object, or is the "case" something else?

Please keep in mind that because I have only recently started studying basic grammar, that I will be unable to unravel extremely sophisticated, advanced analysis.

  • 1
    Your book is right. "Burning desk" is not direct object, but object of the preposition "on". The contrast between nominative and accusative is only found with personal pronouns and with interrogative/relative "who". Other nouns appear in the same form, whether subject or object, and the term 'plain case' can be used for them, not accusative or nominative. So in your example "The book is on the desk", "desk" is plain case noun.
    – BillJ
    Nov 11, 2017 at 8:29
  • The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts. If you are learning English, please consider whether your question might be better suited for English Language Learners. Nov 11, 2017 at 11:56
  • 2
    @Clare They are learning syntax not English. Nov 11, 2017 at 12:04
  • Please tell us the name of this book :) Nov 11, 2017 at 12:07
  • 1
    @tchrist The pronouns "me", "him", "her", "us" and "them" are all accusative case, as is relative/interrogative "whom".
    – BillJ
    Nov 12, 2017 at 12:58

2 Answers 2


The boy stood on a burning desk (...)

But the book says that this sentence doesn't possess any direct object! (...)

Do consider the fact that I have lately started studying pure grammar and hence won't be able to unravel extremely sophisticated stuff.

So, to keep it simple for you, case applies to the subject/object of a verb in English only if the subject or object is a pronoun.

According to @Irene's answer to an earlier question about nominative and accusative cases on this website,

In the English language we have only vestiges of case, like the nominative and the accusative that you mention. You can find them in pronouns:

Nominative: I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they. Accusative: me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them.

The nominative case is used for the subject of the verb, i.e. the word which denotes who/what does what the verb says. The accusative case marks the object of the verb, i.e. the word which receives the action of the verb (when there is such a receiver)

Source: https://english.stackexchange.com/a/50955/231519

Since there are no pronouns in your sentence the subject and any possible object are unrelated to 'case' here.

But why does the book say that the sentence does not have a direct object?

Having or not having a direct or indirect object is not related to nominative/accusative case but to whether the verb is transitive or intransitive.

There is no direct or indirect object in your example sentence because in the context of this sentence, 'stood', the past tense of the verb 'stand', represents an intransitive verb.

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stand

A transitive verb is one that is used with an object. (...) An intransitive verb does not have an object.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/grammar/transitive-and-intransitive-verbs

  • 1
    Thanks a lot for the explanation. Though I am aware of the transitive and intransitive verbs, but certainly it is not possible for me to consult a dictionary to ascertain whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. Is there any other way through which we can find whether there is object in the sentence or not? Some grammar websites I referred to suggested asking "what" or "whom" just after the verb. Does that thing always work?
    – The NOVICE
    Nov 14, 2017 at 9:24
  • 1
    Yes it is a crude and simple, but generally useful method to ask 'what' or 'whom' for most common verbs @The NOVICE -- he ate what // he asked what/whom // he slept what // he stood what -- if the 'what' or 'whom' is good as in 'ate' or 'asked' it is a transitive verb but if it fails to apply as in 'slept' or 'stood', it is an intransitive verb. Nov 14, 2017 at 11:42

There is a very simple answer to your original question: NO! I add a warning: the decline in the teaching of English grammar has produced a host of books (and even grammars published by people who do not know their subject properly. And yours, at best, seems not to have explained critical terminology.

I’ll give the simple explanation. If you want the fuller one, ask me and I’ll be happy to oblige.

The proper use of the term ‘object’ is in the context of old fashioned ‘subject’ (the doer/agent) ‘verb’ (the thing done) and ‘object’ (the person/thing to whom/which it is done). So ‘the driver (subject) hit (verb) the fire hydrant (object). In addition, though, we have relationship of ‘indirect object’. If ‘I give you a book’, there are not two objects! What I give is a book. You, the person I give it to, are the indirect object . I give the book to you. ‘To you’ is a prepositional phrase, modifying the verb ‘give’.

But not all such phrases involve an indirect object. The indirect object has to be the person/thing who/which (indirectly)has had the action done to/for him/her/it.

Otherwise we could end up having hosts of objects or indirect objects. You can add endless prepositional phrases to a verb. “The batter hit the ball with his bat for a home run on Saturday evening with great skill by concentrating on flight of the ball without flinching as it zoomed towards him as a result of constant practice ...”! These are not all objects or even indirect objects, but all modify the verb ‘hit’!

In Latin and Greek, the indirect object was expressed without a preposition by changing the case. The object case was the ‘accusative’; the case for the indirect object was the ‘dative’ case. So, ‘I see you’ is ‘Ego vidéo te’ (accusative); but ‘I give you a book’ is ‘Ego do librum tibi’ (dative).

There is one fly in my ointment. English (I think uniquely) is prepared to violate this principle in the passive voice. We say “I was given a book by you.”. Strictly, we ought to say “a book was given to you by me”. But in English we prefer the shorter version and without any problem of understanding. At this point we have to say that rules drawn up to match the much more artificial rules of Latin do not fully fit the way English works.

  • You yourself bring up the passive voice, which contradicts the idea that you present earlier in this answer that subject = agent and object = person/thing to whom/which the action is done.
    – herisson
    Nov 12, 2017 at 21:05
  • Not really, Sumelic. There is a particular English usage, which allows indirect objects in the sense I have set out to remain as it was when the verb was in the active voice. French does not permit it. You would say ‘un livre est donné à moi’ or ‘on m’a donné un livre’. Modern Greek the same. I have not literally been sent and nothing has sent me. And what exactly is the book doing in this sentence? If this were ancient Greek or Latin, grammatical scholars would probably call it an ‘internal accusative of respect’. But that does not help with parsing the sentence.
    – Tuffy
    Nov 12, 2017 at 21:29
  • What I mean is, your explanation of "subject" and "object" is inaccurate. You say "The proper use of the term ‘object’ is in the context of old fashioned ‘subject’ (the doer/agent) ‘verb’ (the thing done) and ‘object’ (the person/thing to whom/which it is done). So ‘the driver (subject) hit (verb) the fire hydrant (object)." But in any passive-voice sentence, the subject is not the doer/agent. This is true in English, French, Greek, Latin. I'm not talking about complications like trivalent verbs; I'm just talking about typical passive-voice sentences.
    – herisson
    Nov 12, 2017 at 21:33
  • In the Oxford English Grammar [OUP 1996], Sidney Greenbaum puts it thus (3.17): “The indirect object can generally be paraphrased by a phrase introduced by ‘to’ or ‘for’..... When there is one object, the basic structure is SVO; when there are two objects it is SVOO, THE FIRST BEING INDIRECT AND THE SECOND DIRECT. “. Greenbaum puts the rule for conversion into the passive more simply than I did. “When we change an active into a passive sentence, the active indirect object can become the passive subject. ... The active direct object can also become the subject.”.
    – Tuffy
    Nov 12, 2017 at 22:25

Your Answer

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