What’s the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Objects?

Thursday, October 282 min read

For native English speakers, there’s not always a lot of attention paid to the building blocks of the complex structures that make up our language. Objects are one of those fundamental elements of communication. In grammar terms, an object is a noun affected by a verb or preposition. Objects provide context to the subject and verb in a sentence. Let’s discuss the differences between two types of objects — direct and indirect.

Subjects and Verbs

Let’s start at the very beginning. Generally, every complete sentence has a subject and a predicate. A subject can be a noun or pronoun, and it’s paired with an action verb as the predicate. With only two elements needed, a complete sentence could be just two words. In fact, the shortest verse in the Bible (“Jesus wept.”) is a complete, two-word sentence. Of course, when the message is more complex than just a subject and a verb, objects can do the heavy lifting.

What Is a Direct Object?

In a sentence, the direct object is the thing that is being acted upon. Thus, it receives the action of the verb. Look at this example:

Iris mailed a letter.

The subject of the sentence is “Iris.” The verb is “mailed.” The direct object is “a letter.” You can usually figure out the direct object by asking the question, “[verb] what?” or “[verb] whom?” In this case, the question would be, “Mailed what?” And the answer would be the direct object — a letter!

What Is an Indirect Object?

If the direct object is affected by the verb, that means the indirect object is affected by the direct object. Take a look at the previous sentence, with a slight change:

Iris mailed Rahul a letter.

In this example, as in the previous example, “Iris” is the subject, “mailed” is the verb (or the action Iris is performing), and “a letter” is the direct object being mailed. “Rahul” is receiving the direct object (the letter), so he’s the indirect object.

An indirect object is usually a person or a thing. Because the indirect object is affected by the direct object, you cannot have a sentence with only an indirect object. So, if there’s an indirect object, there has to be a direct object.

However, indirect objects can become objects when the sentence is rearranged with verbs that require objects, such as “to write.” “Write” as a verb needs an object.

Iris wrote a letter. (“a letter” is the direct object of “wrote”)

Iris wrote Rahul a letter. (“Rahul” is the indirect object receiving the direct object, “a letter”)

Iris wrote to Rahul. (“Rahul” becomes the object of the preposition “to,” and is no longer the indirect object)

These changes come naturally to native speakers, but if there’s ever a hole in a sentence, and it just doesn’t make sense, check for the missing object.

Feature image credit: fizkes/ iStock

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