A textbook I'm using to refresh some basic grammar states that indirect objects can be identified by it's answering of questions such as 'to whom', 'to what' etc. (fair enough) and they always come before direct objects in a sentence (this raises questions for me).

So the text would identify the pattern in:

The teacher gave the students homework.

as: S - TV - IO - DO

but the pattern in:

Tim kicked the ball to Ken.

as: S - ITV - Prep.

It's been a while, but I was taught the direct object received the action of the verb and the indirect object received the direct object, and also that a verb's classification of transitive or intransitive arises from how it is used in the sentence (i.e. it's not intrinsic to the word itself). So that I would have identified the second example's pattern as:

S - TV - DO - IO

because the preposition is receiving the DO and therefore is the indirect object.

Since 'kicked' can be used with or without an object (i.e. The baby kicked.) I let it pass thinking the text and I could both be correct. But a third example from the text has me questioning how transitivity is assigned:

Problems led to desperation.

the text again gives the pattern as:

S - ITV - Prep.

But, 'Led' is almost never intransitive - not unless it's the answer to a question or given some additional context. And so this classification seems more forced to me.

The text seems to be implying that the role the verb plays in the sentence depends on how you classify the thing it is acting on and that prepositions can not be indirect objects (despite receiving the direct object as well as answering the question 'to what').

Could someone please clarify, illuminate, or otherwise help me make sense of this?

  • 2
    "lead to" is a phrasal verb. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/….
    – Phil Sweet
    Oct 17, 2023 at 2:01
  • 1
    In "Tim kicked the ball to Ken", "the ball" is Od, but there is no Oi. "Ken" is object complement of "to" not of "kicked".
    – BillJ
    Oct 17, 2023 at 7:59
  • 1
    Your "kicked" is definitely a transitive verb, with a direct object. The book has it wrong.
    – TonyK
    Oct 17, 2023 at 14:22

2 Answers 2


Short answer

The book takes the principled position that a noun phrase following a preposition is a Complement of that preposition, not an Object or other Complement of the verb. For that reason, the elephant is not an Object of any sort in the examples below:

  • I looked at the elephant.
  • I gave a book to the elephant.

And thus, in turn, looked in the first example above cannot be transitive as it has no Object. The verb gave in the second example cannot be ditransitive, because it doesn't have two Objects. Notice that whether a verb is transitive or intransitive depends on how it is used in a particular clause, as described by the Original Poster. (Another way of viewing this is that it is clauses and not verbs which are transitive or intransitive.)

Full answer

To recap the basic descriptive principle:

  1. Intransitive = no object
  2. Transitive = (at least) one object
  3. Ditransitive = two objects

Many ditransitive verbs, as noted by John Lawler, are verbs of transfer (sometimes called benefactive verbs). They thus involve a thing being given and a recipient of that thing. In English, when such verbs have two objects, the recipient usually comes first and the thing being given comes second:

  1. Bob sent Mary a letter.

Now, in some languages, like Latin for example, nouns have different inflections (i.e. they appear with different endings) in different environments. These inflections depend on the grammatical relations that the larger noun phrase has within the sentence. One common type of inflection, which is used to mark the recipient noun phrase (amongst other things), is called the dative:

  1. Bob Jacobo librum dedit. ['Bob Jacob book gave']

In (6) above the noun Jacobo is in the dative case. If we wanted to translate this example into English we would have a choice. We could use either (7) or (8) below:

  1. Bob gave Jacob a book.
  2. Bob gave a book to Jacob.

Notice that in both sentences the verb give takes two Complements. However, in (7) these are both noun phrases but in (8) the first is a noun phrase and the second is a preposition phrase (henceforth NPs and PPs). Now, for those who enjoy the spurious pastime of pretending that English is a version of Latin, we can pretend that the noun Jacob has the same grammatical relations in the two sentences. However, it very clearly does not, even though the two sentences are each excellent translations of the Latin sentence in (6). And one thing is certain, the NP Jacob is not dative in either example. English common nouns do not have case. They have no inflections like the Latin -o in Jacobo, which tell us what their grammatical relation are.

At this point we need to be absolutely clear about a little problem that we introduced early on in this post. Grammatical relations (aka syntactic functions) such as Subject, Object, Indirect Object, Predicative Complement, Determiner and so forth are about how a sentence is structured, they tell us about the job that a particular word or phrase is doing in a larger phrase or sentence. They are expressly not about meaning. To help a schoolkid identify a Subject, it is a fast and dirty heuristic to tell them that the Subject is the person or thing doing the action. However, this is not an illusion we should allow to fester for more than a morning or two. Many verbs do not denote actions, and the entities denoted by Subjects are often not doing anything at all. Consider:

  1. Bob survived the accident.
  2. Bob received a blow to the chin.

And, of course, the Subjects of passive clauses characteristically do not carry out actions:

  1. Bob was fired.

And some NP Subjects are meaningless dummies, existing merely to fill the Subject position (an obligatory slot in tensed clauses in English):

  1. It was raining
  2. It is good to talk.
  3. There is a problem.

We can clearly see that any attempt to define grammatical relations primarily in terms of meaning is doomed. Let us never do this again!

This applies to all grammatical relations, not just Subjects, but Objects and Indirect Objects and so forth as well. Consider the sentences below:

  1. Bob eyeballed [the book].
  2. Bob stared [at the book].

Now semantically, the entity denoted by the noun phrase the book stands in the same relation to Bob in each of these sentences. However, in (15) the book is a Direct Object of the verb eyeball and in (16) it is not. In (16) the book is a Complement of the preposition at. The two clauses are structured very differently. The two verbs in (15)—(16) take different types of Complement, one takes a noun phrase and the second a preposition phrase. We can use the NP Complement as a Subject in a passive version of the sentence, but not the PP one:

  1. The book was eyeballed by Bob.
  2. *At the book was stared by Bob. [ungrammatical]

For these types of reason, we need to distinguish between clauses like (15), which are transitive, and those such as (16), which are not. The verb in (16) has no Direct Object.

This same kind of principle applies to verbs that take two complements. Consider these examples again (renumbered here for convenience):

  1. Bob gave Jacob a book.
  2. Bob gave a book to Jacob.

In (19) Jacob is the (Indirect) Object of the verb gave, but in (20) it is the Complement of the preposition to. The verb give in (19) has two Complements, both NPs. In (20), in contrast, the verb give has an NP Complement and a PP Complement. The NP Complement, Jacob in (19) can become the Subject of a passive version of the sentence. The same is not true of the PP complement to Jacob in (20):

  1. Jacob was given a book by Bob.
  2. *To Jacob was given a book by Bob. [ungrammatical]

For the same kind of reasons that we don't regard the book a Direct Object of the verb in Bob stared at the book, we don't regard Jacob as an Indirect Object in Bob gave a book to Jacob. And again, for the same reason that Bob eyeballed the book is a transitive clause and Bob stared at the book is not, (19) is a ditransitive clause, but (20) is not. It is neither here nor there that Jacob is the recipient of the book in both clauses. This kind of semantic consideration does not tell us how the sentence is structured. And terms like Subject and Object and so forth are all structural terms.

The Original Poster's question

To try and define Direct Objects, Indirect Objects, Subjects and so forth by their meanings is a lost cause. It will never work and will always result in confusion and serious problems. It is not our fault that this is how we were taught grammar in school. It is how our teachers had been taught themselves. It was not their fault either.

Some grammarians nowadays still like to talk about Jacob in Bob gave a book to Jacob as an Indirect Object because Jacobo would be an Indirect Object in the Latin version of the sentence. While it might be useful to understand that while Latin used the dative case to mark out the recipients of verbs of transfer and that a similar kind of job is being done by the preposition to in such English sentences, there is no getting round the fact that the structure of the English sentence is different. And since grammatical relations terms are about structure and not about meaning, this difference in structure is important. The word Jacob in Bob gave the book to Jacob does not have the same structural job as it does in either I gave Jacob the book or Jacobo does in Bob Jacobo librum dedit.

In short where a noun phrase is a Complement of a preposition, it is not a Complement of the verb! And for that reason we cannot consider Ken an Object of the verb in:

  • Tim kicked the ball [to Ken].

The structure of that sentence is Subject, Predicator (read 'verb'), Direct Object, Locative Complement. Within the Locative Complement, Ken is the Complement of the preposition to. This is not a ditransitive use of the verb kick.

Similarly, consider:

  1. Passion replaced desperation.
  2. The problems led to desperation.

Desperation is an Object of the verb in (23), but not in (24), where it is the Complement of a preposition. We can use desperation as the Subject of a passivised version of (23), but we cannot do this with to desperation in (24):

  1. Desperation was replaced by passion.
  2. *To desperation was led by the problems. (ungrammatical)

Sometimes we can create a prepositional passive and take the object of a preposition in an active clause and turn it into the subject of a passive clause:

  1. *Desperation was led to by the problems. (ungrammatical)

The fact that even this is not available shows that desperation doesn't even have a vaguely Object-like semantics in (24). The structure of (24) is Subject, Predicator, Locative Complement. The verb led is used intransitively within this clause.

Note on terminology

It is a free world. You are perfectly free to call the Complements of Prepositions the Indirect Objects of the verb higher up in the syntax tree if you so desire. Heck, you can call Subjects 'Indirect Objects' if you want. Who am I to complain?

However, if you really want to do this, you must face, square and head on, the problems that you are going to create for your readers. First of all, are you using Indirect Object as a semantic term or a syntactic one—because nobody else will be able to tell now that you've skewed the line between the two. Secondly, how can a word or phrase be a constituent of two different phrases/clauses at the same time. Is an Indirect Object a constituent of the verb phrase it occurs in? Note that it can't be if the Indirect Object of a verb is the complement inside a preposition phrase. And having an Indirect Object which isn't a constituent of the verb phrase it occurs in is very confusing and utterly weird. Nonetheless, it's a free world!

  • Ok - I see the difference now and you made the reasoning behind it clear - thank you. It seems I have some unresolved philosophical problems with modern grammar; however, since I am more interested in meaning than structural function, I am going to ignore them. I understand perfectly what you are saying and accept it's correctness, nonetheless, the idea of omitting meaning from the study of grammar seems like omitting water from the study of oceanography. But I'll save that debate for another time and place.
    – Jos
    Oct 18, 2023 at 2:58
  • @Jos It’s really more like excluding rivers from oceanography. Just like rivers and oceans, grammar and semantics do have areas of contact and bleed/feed into each other (with grammar especially feeding into semantics), but by and large, they are separate fields of study that work in quite different ways and require fundamentally different frameworks to describe. Oct 18, 2023 at 12:02
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    @Jos Once you can clearly separate the structure from the semantics, things start to get really interesting, because you can look at how the two things work together and where they come apart. For example, why does English provide two different constructions for verbs of transfer if they both mean the same thing? Why are virtually (but not quite) all ditransitive verbs verbs of transfer? We still have linguistic words to describe the different phrases according to their semantics, these are called theta roles or semantic roles. Oct 18, 2023 at 12:28
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    @Jos And once you keep the structure and the semantics different, you can then talk clearly about things like passive and active clauses. For example we can say things like: a patient denoted by the object of an active clause will become the subject of a passive clause. You can't say things like that if you conflate the notions of subject and agent and object and patient, for example. So clear terminology about the grammar and semantics helps us to talk about them both more clearly! It makes the semantics more interesting. Oct 18, 2023 at 12:32
  1. Intransitive verbs have no objects, only a subject.
  2. Transitive verbs have a subject, and a direct object.
  3. Ditransitive (or bitransitive) verbs have a subject, and a direct object, and also an indirect object.

BUT these definitions do not apply to verbs in a dictionary -- they apply to verbs in actual sentences, and many verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on context and construction. Most ditransitive verbs are verbs of transfer (like give, throw, tell, send, bring, etc, though there are a few verbs like elect, nominate, appoint, etc) that just equate two direct object nouns.

  • Mary lost. (intransitive)
  • Mary lost the game. (transitive)
  • Mary told Bill the secret. (ditransitive transfer verb)
  • The committee elected John chairman. (ditransitive non-transfer)

The difficulty comes with transfer verbs -- the ones that have an "indirect object". I put the term in quotes because there is a problem with it. Which boldfaced noun phrase is the indirect object in these two sentences?

  • Mary sent Bill the book.
  • Mary sent the book to Bill.

And the answer is: both of them. There is a syntactic rule called the Dative Alternation, which allows two versions of most, though not all, transfer verbs. Dative has two variants -- one is Verb + Indirect Object NP + Direct Object NP, like the first one above, and the other variant is Verb + Direct Object NP + _to_ + Indirect Object NP, like the second one above. They're both indirect objects, and the to is just to mark them as such, like the dative case in languages that have it.

This is not true for just any preposition; the Dative Alternation requires to as a marker, but -- like the to of infinitives, it doesn't mean anything.

  • So would you say the textbook is in error when it classifies 'led' in "Problems led to desperation." as intransitive?
    – Jos
    Oct 17, 2023 at 1:20
  • Yeah, that's intransitive. Certainly desperation is not an object, and there's no direct object. To desperation is not a receiver but a path of causality. Completely different construction. Oct 17, 2023 at 2:16
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    Why have you starred "Mary told Bill the secret"? I can't see anything ungrammatical about it. In "Mary sent the book to Bill", there is no Oi. "Bill" is comp of "to", not of "sent".
    – BillJ
    Oct 17, 2023 at 8:10
  • Why is elect ditransitive when the second NP is a predicative complement and not an object? Oct 17, 2023 at 8:43
  • @BillJ It was just the second asterisk was missing for the purposes of italicising the sentence. I'm surprised you didn't ask about elect! Oct 17, 2023 at 8:44

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