I have two questions related to the following sentence:

I saw pictures of animals.

My first question is, what is the direct object of the sentence?

(a) The direct object is pictures.

(b) The direct object is pictures of animals.

(c) Either or both pictures and pictures of animals can correctly be termed the direct object of the sentence.

My second question is whether there is a grammatical term for a prepositional phrase like of animals that modifies the direct object of a sentence, and if so, what is it?

I'm hoping to receive an authoritative reply to both questions by someone who truly understands grammatical terminology, and not a criticism of the sample sentence or a suggestion of how to rewrite or replace the sample sentence. Thank you.

  • (a) is correct. The direct object is the whole NP "pictures of animals". The of phrase is called a 'complement' of "pictures".
    – BillJ
    Nov 16, 2017 at 18:04
  • 1
    There are two traditions in terminology like "direct object". The older and less useful tradition says that objects have to be words, so multi-word phrases are out. The more recent and useful tradition says that objects have to be noun phrases, which may be one word, and will always have a single head. So the better answer is (b), in modern English grammar. As to the second question, there is no particular term for a prepositional phrase modifying a direct object; prepositions can modify practically anything. Nov 16, 2017 at 18:07
  • I wouldn't go along with JL's label of 'modifier' for the function of the PP "of animals". The PP is specified by the head noun "pictures" and hence is a complement, not a modifier. Most -of phrases in NP structure are complements - they express a semantic argument of the head noun. I do agree that the term 'complement' is not restricted to just those PPs that occur as complement of the head noun in a direct object. Complements can occur as dependents in virtually any construction. Btw, correction to my earlier message - it should of course read (b), not (a).
    – BillJ
    Nov 16, 2017 at 19:00
  • @John Lawler — So in "I've learned a great deal about molecular biology in the past few years," you'd say "a great deal about molecular biology" is the direct object? Or would you include "in the past few years" as part of the direct object as well?
    – Bram
    Nov 17, 2017 at 9:01
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    In your latest example, the preposition phrase "about molecular biology" is not a modifier, but a complement of "learned". "Learned" thus has two complements: the direct object "a great deal" and the PP "about molecular biology".
    – BillJ
    Nov 23, 2017 at 19:37

1 Answer 1


The direct object is (b) the entire noun phrase (although some theoreticians worry about calling the noun a head of a phrase, since deep heads should be closed class, such as quantifiers).

A prepositional phrase (PP) that restricts a noun phrase (NP or *DP) is called an adnominal adjunct (according to Wikipedia). A PP that modifies a predicate is called an adverbial adjunct.

The word 'modifier' is sometimes restricted to those cases where the removal of such a phrase (an adjunct) would not change the grammaticality of the sentence, while the word 'complement' is sometimes restricted to those cases where it would.

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