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Direct Object

He kicked the ball.

The normal order of an English sentence is subject-verb-object, like this:

subject verb object
He kicked the ball.

In the above sentence, the action or verb is "kicked". The subject (He) performed the action (kicked). And the object (the ball) received the action.

Strictly speaking, "the ball" is the direct object, and the direct object directly received the action of the verb. Let's look at some more examples:

subject verb direct object
The teacher explained the rules.
Cats eat fish.
John loves Mary.
I like chocolate.
They have bought a new car.
The company is considering my proposal.

Notice that in all the above cases the subject is "doing" the action, and the direct object (D.O.) is receiving or undergoing the action.

A direct object can be one word or several words. It can be:

  • noun (People eat rice.)
  • noun phrase (They bought a big red car.)
  • pronoun (I love you.)
  • phrase (Tara hates cleaning the house.)
  • clause (I love when he tells jokes.)

We use Direct Object with transitive verbs only

We DO NOT use direct objects with all verbs. Only a transitive verb can have a direct object. With a transitive verb the action "transits" from the subject through the verb to the direct object (He kicked the ball). The verb kick is a transitive verb because it can have a direct object. But verbs like live, die, cough, sit do not pass any action to something else—they are intransitive and have NO object. Look at these examples—each transitive verb on the left has a direct object, and each intransitive verb on the right has no object:

transitive verb with direct object intransitive verb with NO object
They put off the wedding. Smoke rises.
Most people like ice cream. John was sleeping.
He drinks wine. I will go first.
The mechanic has fixed our car. He died in 1989.
He likes Tara. She lived for 100 years.

DO NOT use Direct Object with linking verbs

Verbs like be, seem, smell, taste do not express action. Instead, they are like an equals sign (=) in mathematics. They are linking verbs. Look at these examples:

  • Mr Brown is my teacher. (Mr Brown = my teacher)
  • It seems strange. (It = strange)
  • It became cold. (It = cold)

There is no direct object in the above sentences because linking verbs do not perform any action. (In the above sentences, my teacher, strange and cold are "subject complements".)

How to find the Direct Object

To check whether a direct object (D.O.) exists in a sentence, and to identify it, ask "what?" or "whom?" about the verb.

The teacher explained the rules.
WHAT did the teacher explain? D.O. - the rules

John loves Mary.
WHOM does John love? D.O. - Mary

He died in 1989.
WHAT did he die? ???? (no D.O.)
WHOM did he die? ???? (no D.O.)

If Direct Object is a pronoun, the pronoun must be in objective case

Remember that pronouns can have subjective and objective case, like this:

personal pronouns
subjective case objective case
he, she, it
him, her, it

When the direct object is a pronoun, the pronoun MUST be in objective case. Look at these examples:

  • Fred helped me.
  • Does she like him?
  • I told them.
The interrogative pronoun who also has an objective case: whom.
  • Whom did she tell?
  • She told me.
But note that English speakers often say who, even when whom would be grammatically correct. So, for example, you will often hear sentences like "Who did she tell?" spoken by native English speakers. BUT you will never hear sentences like "She told I" or "John helped they" spoken by a native speaker. Personal pronouns used as objects MUST be in objective case.

Phrases and clauses can be Direct Objects

As indicated above, a direct object doesn't have to be a single noun or pronoun. It can also be a complete noun phrase, a phrase or a clause. Look at these examples:

  • We bought a brand new BMW sports car.
  • Everybody loves eating chocolate.
  • Johnny wants to go and play football.
  • Please describe what you saw when you arrived.
  • He thought that the show had started.

More example sentences with Direct Object

The direct object can appear in positive sentences, negative sentences, question sentences and imperative sentences. Here are some examples showing the direct object in different types of sentence:

  • James Bond changed his clothes and phoned Mother.
  • The gardener cut the grass and trimmed the hedge.
  • Hillary wrote two emails but then she deleted them.
  • Do you want tea or coffee?
  • Will you meet John?
  • Why did you break her favourite toy?
  • Can you make some fruit cakes and bring them to the party?
  • When did you discover your talent for playing music?
  • Shoot him!
  • Don't kill him!
  • Sit down and lower your voice.
  • He has not finished his homework.
  • They don't normally drink beer but they love the wine you served last night.
  • I hate when they play loud music.
  • They don't like being told what to do.

Song titles with Direct Object

Many famous song titles include a direct object. Here are a few. Can you find more?

  • I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (U2)
  • Light My Fire (The Doors)
  • I Say a Little Prayer (Dionne Warwick)
  • You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (Cilla Black)
  • Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree (Tony Orlando)
  • I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston)
  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones)
  • Let’s Face the Music and Dance (Fred Astaire)
  • The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (Roberta Flack)

Contributor: Josef Essberger