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Concourse 2

Subjects and Objects: the essentials

What is the difference?

kiss

In the English sentences:

  1. The man kissed the woman
  2. The woman kissed the man

we only know who did what to whom by the order of the words.

The subject comes first in both sentences so we know that is the doer of the action.  The object follows the verb so we know that is the receiver of the action.  If we reverse the order, we reverse the sense.

In sentence 1 the man is the subject of the verb kiss the woman is the object of the verb
In sentence 2 the woman is the subject of the verb kiss the man is the object of the verb

Usually, of course, we can understand what is the subject and what is the object of a verb by the meaning of the sentence:

  1. Peter drank the water

Cannot (sensibly) be changed to:

  1. The water drank Peter

Here's a little test.
Identify the subjects and the objects of the verbs in this story and then click on the story for the answers.

case structure 1

In grammar books, you will often see the term nominative (case) to refer to the subject and accusative (case) to refer to the object.  Most learners of English don't need to understand these terms (but you do).
We have now identified two of the three cases in English (the third is the possessive or genitive which does not concern us here).


hands

Other languages do things differently

Languages which show case structure

If you speak some German, the following will be familiar to you:

  1. Der Mann küsste die Frau
  2. Die Frau küsste den Mann

Sentences 5 and 6 are direct translations of sentences 1 and 2.  Notice, however, that there is subtle difference: the definite article for the man changes from der to den in sentence 2.  This is because German is one of many languages which distinguishes between cases by changing the form of words.  It can also change the form of adjectives and nouns to reflect the case.  In this example, the article for the woman is the same in both cases.
The second thing to note is that reversing the word order does not reverse the meanings of the sentences:

  1. Die Frau der Mann küsste
  2. Den Mann die Frau küsste

A German speaker might be mildly surprised by the word-order change but under no illusions about who did what to whom because the accusative form of the article is intact so we know that the man is the object in sentence 8 and it was she who did the kissing.

Exactly the same thing is possible in a whole range of languages including other Germanic languages, Slavic languages, Greek and so on.  Some of these languages have very free ordering of elements of the clause because the changes to nouns, articles and so on tell us what the subject and object of the verb are.


ordering

Word order

In the example above, German, the word order is more or less the same as in English.  That is Subject + Verb + Object.  Not all languages are so accommodating.  However, of the world's languages (especially the larger ones), 75% are either Subject + Object + Verb or, like English, Subject + Verb + Object.
Here's a very short list to show what is meant.  All languages can vary the word order for poetic effect, to show questions and so on but this is the usual ordering.

Usual word order Languages Example
Subject + Verb + Object *Arabic
Chinese languages

Czech, Polish, Russian and most Slavic languages
Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and related languages
English

*German
Greek
Indonesian
French, Spanish, Italian and other Italic languages
Thai
I love you
Subject + Object + Verb Basque
Bengali
Farsi
Hindi
Hungarian
†Japanese
Korean
Punjabi
Turkish
Urdu
Welsh
I you love
*also Subject + Object + Verb (I you love) | †also Object + Subject + Verb (You I love)
For more, look at the essential guide to word order on this site.


Why does this matter to English language teachers?

Think for a moment and then click here.


identify

Identifying the true Object

Students (and some teachers) can be confused by sentences such as He said the brakes were worn, thinking that the brakes is the object of the verb said.  It isn't and say is usually intransitive, by the way.
The situation is slightly complex but for the purposes of this guide remember that objects in English are always either nouns (or noun phrases) or pronouns.  In these sentences, the true objects are in red.  There is a description of the other items which are called complements.

  1. The boy kicked the cat.
  2. The boy jumped over the fence. (prepositional phrase complement, not the object)
  3. She came early. (adverb complement, not the object)
  4. The man told a tall story.
  5. He is feeling extremely ill. (adjectival complement, not object)
  6. He is feeling the material's texture.
  7. He called me.
  8. He spoke to me. (prepositional phrase complement, not the object)

012

Transitivity, Ditransitivity and Intransitivity

We saw above that some verbs do not take an object and some do.  Many verbs can do both (and sometimes change their meaning in one case or the other).

Verbs like come and go in English never take and object (they are always intransitive).
We can say
    He came to the party
    I came over the hill
    She came to talk to me
etc. but we cannot have
    *I came the party
    *She came the hospital
    * We came the beach
etc.  We can say
    I go on Thursdays
    I went to the party
    I will go now
but not
    *I go London
    I went the school
    I will go the lesson
etc.
Verb like take, enjoy and buy in English always take an object (they are always transitive).  When they only have one object, they are described as monotransitive.  The objects are in red in these examples.
We can say
    She took the medicine
    They took it away from me
    We took the bus to London
etc. but things like
    *He took
    *They take
    *Mary took
etc. are not usually possible.
We can say
    I bought a ticket
    She'll buy a new car
    They buy cigarettes there
etc. but
    *They buy
    *She bought
    *I'll be buying
etc. are not usually possible.
(Note that even when we leave out the object as in something like
    It's OK.  I'll buy!
we are still using the verb transitively because we have the object [the drinks, the food etc.] in our heads.)
Verbs like eat, smoke, and leave, can be used with an object (transitively) or without (intransitively).
We can say
    I ate early

and

    I ate the fish
    She smokes

and

    She smoked a cigar
Transitive verbs, like ask, give, owe and pay can take two objects (they are ditransitive).  In the following, the direct object is in red and the indirect object is in black.
We can say
    I asked a question

and

    I asked him a question
    I gave the money away

and

    I gave the money to John
    I owe €500

and

    I owe her €500
    I paid $400

and
    I paid him $400 etc.
With ditransitive verbs, there are two objects: a direct object which must be present and an indirect object which usually comes first and may be present.  The direct object in
    John asked me a question
is a question and me is the indirect object.
A simple test to see which is which is to remove one of them and see if the sentence still makes the same sense.  Of it does, you have removed the indirect object.

One thing to be aware of is that the analysis here refers to English.  Languages vary in how transitivity works and that can cause all sorts of error such as:
    *I enjoy very much (enjoy is always transitive)
    *I arrived the hotel (arrive is always intransitive)
    *I directed him the station (direct is always monotransitive, never ditransitive)


The key terms and concepts you have learned in this guide are: subject, direct object, indirect object, nominative, accusative, transitive, intransitive, ditransitive, case.

You have also learned how to identify the subject and the object of a verb and distinguish it from other ways to end the sentence.

Click here to take a test.


For information, here's a classified list of some common verbs:

generally transitive usually intransitive transitive and intransitive can be ditransitive
ask
attend
believe
buy
consider
contact
describe
discuss
emphasise
enjoy
find
join
lay
like
lose
love
make
need
raise
receive
take
telephone
use
want
watch
appear
arrive
come
cough
die
disappear
fall
happen
lie
live
rain
rise
sneeze
snow
wait
work
break
close
drive
drop
eat
end
enter
explode
finish
fly
leave
manage
call
read
smoke
turn
type
win
write

These verbs often have a slightly different meaning in the two uses and take different sorts of subjects.  Compare, e.g.:
She broke the chair vs. The chair broke.
He called at six vs. He called his mother.

ask
bring
charge
find
give
hand
leave
lend
make
offer
owe
pay
promise
save
send
serve
show
teach
tell
wish



Related guides
verb and clause types for a more advanced guide to the area
word order an essential guide only with links to more technical guides
case a more technical guide to case in English


References:
Chalker, S, 1987, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Mallinson, G and Blake, BJ, 1981, Language typology: crosslinguistic studies in syntax, Amsterdam: North-Holland Linguistic Series
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds), 2001, Learner English, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press