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I have heard (see [1] and [2]) that verbs can only take an indirect object if they also take a direct object. That is, all verbs which take an indirect object are ditransitive. However, consider the following sentence.

I shall provide you with what you need.

Here, the verb 'provide' is monotransitive, though it does also take a prepositional complement. Yet its direct object ('you') appears semantically to be more similar to an indirect object than to a direct one. This is also seen in other sentences (including ones without a prepositional phrase):

Stephan has already told me.

She informed us of her plan

I am well aware that the dative case can be marked by means of a prepositional phrase. For instance,

She donated £100 to charity.

He was sure he had returned her pen to her.

In these sentences, the indirect object is marked with a prepositional phrase headed by 'to'. But unlike the previous examples, where the objects all had the semantic role of goal (i.e. the actions were directed at them), the direct objects here have the semantic role of 'theme'.

Is it possible, therefore, for monotransitive verbs to take an indirect object only?

[1]: https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/sentence/indirect-object.htm#:~:text=An%20Indirect%20Object%20needs%20a,can%20have%20a%20direct%20object). [2]: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/indirect-object/

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  • Since you is you (direct and indirect object) how can it be more semantically similar to you?
    – Lambie
    Aug 3 at 21:05
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    No, you is not a direct object here. I am not providing that you thing, but providing something to you or for you. A typical indirect object structure. Also, it's "providing with" that works together. Aug 3 at 21:06
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    @YosefBaskin I'm just curious: How about "I shall provision you with . . ." or "I shall supply you with . . ."? Is "you" a DO or IO in those sentences? Aug 3 at 21:25
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    How do you tell which NP is the indirect object in these constructions? What syntactic tests does one check? Oh, and "I have heard" is not a reference source; you have no idea what the person who told you might have ingested. Aug 3 at 21:59
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    @tchrist I think that comparing sentences 2 and 7 is illustrative. I'd consider "workers" a DO in either case (with "provide" having a different meaning), but I understand how some people might consider it a DO only in #2 (and not in #7). Aug 4 at 23:42

3 Answers 3

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[1] I sent Sue a copy.

[2] Sue was sent a copy.

[3] A copy was sent Sue.

Except in certain non-canonical constructions (such as the passive - see below) Oi is only found with Od. Compare the two passives, [2] and [3].

In [2] the subject corresponds to the first object, Oi, in the active, [1].

But in [3] the subject corresponds to the second object in [1], i.e. the Od.

[2] is perfectly acceptable, of course, but judgements vary as to the acceptability of [3], where there is an indirect object but no direct object.

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Some grammarians define "indirect object" and "direct object" in such a way that it is impossible to have an indirect object without a direct one. Namely, if there is only one object in a sentence, it is by definition a direct object. For example:

My job is to supply the expedition with food.

Here "expedition" is a direct object.

My job is to supply food for the expedition.

Now, "food" is the direct object.

My job is to supply them food.

Now, we have two objects, so food is the direct object and them is the indirect object.

This definition makes it impossible to have a verb with only an indirect object, but it also has the confusing property that something can suddenly change from a direct to an indirect object if you add another word or two to the sentence.

To be fair, this definition works quite well for many verbs, for example bought.

If you say

I bought the Senator a yacht,

then there are two objects, and the thing you paid money for is the yacht, which you gave to the Senator. However, if you just say

I bought the Senator,

the thing you are paying money for is the Senator (or more specifically, his vote). So here, the grammar of the verb to buy ensures that you can't use it with just an indirect object; if there's just one object of the verb buy, it is automatically the thing you are paying money for.

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    The use of buy with for is a benefactive construction, which can undergo Dative shift just providing the object of for winds up possessing the direct object. Cf: She fixed him his sandwich vs *She fixed him his car. "Indirect object" is sort of a zombie term any more. Relational Grammar (aka Arc Pair grammar) uses Subject, Object, and Indirect Object as basic terms, so that Passive is 2 -> 1 (Object maps to Subject) and Dative shift is 3 -> 2 (IO maps to DO). Aug 4 at 17:56
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I would say, “No. It is not possible for an English monotransitive verb to have only an indirect object. Mainly because “indirect object” is an unhelpful term.

To put is monotransitive and requires a mandatory adverbial complement:

He put the question to John/me.

*He put John/me the question. He put the question John/me. John was put the question by him.

To give is said to be ditransitive, but in fact it is monotransitive and also takes a complement:

I gave the book to John

I gave John the book.

?I gave the book John.

“To John/to me” and “John/me” are both complements.

("I gave John to the slave trader" - "to the slave trader" is the complement.)

If we accept that, in English, as opposed to languages that have a dative case**, there are no “indirect objects” but only complements, the problems disappear.

Objects are “of the verb”. The transitive verb* acts upon one object and nothing else – any apparent indirect object can be classified as a complement (usually adverbial).

“To John/me” = “John/me”

This leaves

A: “It occurred to me that he had left.” -> “That he had left occurred to me.”

B: “The same thing happened to me!”

in which there appears to be an indirect object of a monotransitive verb: the occurring/happening works on “me”.

However this does not differ from to put above except that to occur/happen has an optional complement, rather than a mandatory one:

“Shit happens [to him/the village]” – “The disaster occurred [to him/the village]”

(It strikes me that subject and object are unclear but convenient terms: “Agent and Patient” seem better as it covers intransitive verbs – I fell/died, etc. in which the subject is both agent and patient.)

*Yes… only sentences are transitive but let’s stick with the convenient term used in the question.

**My jury is still out on the dative: I suspect that the dead hand of the grammatical cases of Old English is still felt and when compared to the German “Es gescheht mir” “Es fällt mir ein” the dative can be seen – however, this does not stop the dative being adverbial and a complement.

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  • This is mostly right, but not quite. You have to distinguish arguments from adjuncts. A complement is a core argument, so it's always a nominal argument to the verb. Prepositional phrases are adjuncts; they're oblique arguments rather than core arguments like the subject and any objects. See here or here. Adjuncts are almost never obligatory, but you're right that put has an obligatory one.
    – tchrist
    Aug 5 at 1:32
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    @tchrist PPs are not always adjuncts. In, for example, "the man with black hair", the PP "with black hair" is a modifier in phrase structure, Leaving aside supplements, adjuncts are distinguished by being modifiers in clause structure, i.e. modifiers in the VP or clause, not modifiers in phrase structure, such as in NPs, AdjPs, PPs etc.
    – BillJ
    Aug 5 at 8:47

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