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Concourse 2

Unit 5: subjects, objects and adverbials

subject and object

This Unit draws on the knowledge of verbs that you acquired in Unit 3.
If you cannot remember the difference between transitive, intransitive, ditransitive, monotransitive and ambivalent verbs, here's some revision.
Look at the verbs in the left-hand column, make a sentence or two in your head and then click on the eye open to get some comments:

eye open
eye open
eye open
eye open

Hopefully, by now, you found that quite easy.
If you couldn't do that, you should review the section in Unit 3.

There are 4 sections to this unit and here's the menu.
Clicking on the yellow arrow at the end of each section will return you to this menu.

Section Looking at:
A Subjects and objects
Identifying which is which.
B Passive and active voice clauses
Raising the object to the subject position.
C Multi-word verbs
Transitive and intransitive
D Adverbials
Modifying and completing verb phrases.

Section A: Subject and Objects


A task

The subject of a verb is who or what does the action or exists in the state.
The object is the thing or person on which the verb acts or which receives or benefits from the action.
So, in, for example:

  1. John broke the glass
        John is the subject (who did the action) and the glass is the object (which received the action)
  2. The weather improved
    The weather is the subject and there is no object
  3. Fred went to Margate
    Fred is the subject and, again, there is no object (the verb is intransitive)
  4. That man in the corner with the old dog bought everyone a drink
    We have a more complicated sentence but we can still say:
    1. That man in the corner with the old dog is the subject
    2. a drink is the first, direct object (because that is what he bought)
    3. everyone is the second, indirect object (because they were the people who got the benefit)

In this list, can you identify the subject and the objects?  Click on eye to show the answer

1 She was carrying her books
2 Some of Mozart's earliest compositions are on the radio tonight
3 That he was allowed to leave early surprised me
4 I told her that the money was not enough
5 The University press published the book for him
6 In the corner is the best place for it


So we have the terminology right, what we are talking about here with terms such as subject and object is to do with case:

Other languages are much more enthusiastic about case, making changes to articles, adjectives, nouns and all sorts of other elements to conform to the case in which they appear.
English is simpler (although the pronoun system is heavily influenced by case considerations) and we can happily just talk about the subject, object and possessive cases, however non-technical and loose it sounds.
In fact, there are those who aver that English doesn't really have a case grammar (or not much of one).


Ordering the elements

A very simple way to identify the subject and object of verbs in English, which may be how you solved the puzzles above, is to look at where they come in the sentence.
This is because English does not mark the subject and the object in any way (by, for example, changing an ending or altering the form of the determiner).
This means, therefore, that the difference between:
    The traffic jam caused the delay
    The delay caused the traffic jam
can only be understood by looking at the order of the elements.
In English, the most common way, by far, is to put the Subject first, then the Verb and then the Object (if any).
English, therefore, is described as an SVO language.

Other languages do thing differently.
In English, we know that the difference between:
    The man told the woman
    The woman told the man
is determined by which element goes where in the sentence.  In the first, we know that the man did the telling and in the second that it was the woman.
In other languages, German, for example, which has a sophisticated case grammar, the first sentence is:
    Der Mann sagte der Frau
and the second sentence is
    Die Frau sagte dem Mann
and you can see that the form of the word for the is different (der, die and dem).
Those two sentences translate like this:

German Der Mann sagte der Frau
English The man told the woman
German Die Frau sagte dem Mann
English The woman told the man

And you can see in the yellow boxes how the article (the) changes depending on who did the telling and who was told.  When the man is the subject, the article is der and when the woman is the subject, the article is die.  However, when the man is the object, the article is dem and when the woman is the object, the article is der.

This means that:
    Dem Mann sagte die Frau
still means
    The woman told the man
even though the phrases have been reversed.
We can reverse the phrases in English, of course, but if we do, we change the meaning of the sentence.

In the essential guide to subjects and object on this site, linked below, you can access a list of languages some of which are SVO (like English) and some of which have a different ordering, often SOV (like Bengali, Farsi, Hindi, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean and Turkish), where the usual ordering is different so in those languages the sentence would be:
    The woman the man told.


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about subjects and objects, go to:
essential guide to subjects and objects
which has links to other guides in the area of word ordering.


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, 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

Section B: Passive and Active voice


My camera's been stolen!

Now that we know the difference between the subject and the object, we can make things confusing!

As we saw above, most English positive sentences follow the SVO ordering so we get, for example, all the sentences in the left-hand column of this table:

Active Passive
He spent the money The money was spent (by him)
Mary did the work The word was done (by Mary)
The car has damaged the fence The fence has been damaged (by the car)
My team did the best work The best work was done by my team, not the other teams

but now we need to consider what is happening in the right-hand column.
The sentences in the yellow column are all active sentences and that is the usual way positive sentences are formed as we have seen.
In the green column, we have the passive sentence equivalents and we choose this form because:

  1. We don't know what the subject of the active sentence is as in:
        My camera has been stolen
  2. We don't care who the subject is as in:
        The house has been sold
  3. The subject is obvious to everyone as in:
        She has been arrested
  4. We want to make the subject even more important as in:
        The window was broken by the neighbours' children, not our children

Overall, the simpler way of saying all this is that we use a passive sentence or clause when we want to mark something in the sentence as being particularly important.  In these sentences that is:

  1. my camera
  2. the house
  3. she
  4. the neighbours' children

In the first three sentences, it is not necessary to insert the phrase with by so that is optional and why it was in brackets in the green column.


Forming a passive sentence

This is how we make a passive voice clause in English (languages differ):

  1. Find the object and put it first
  2. Insert the correct form of the verb be
  3. Insert the correct form of the main verb (the past participle)
  4. (Insert by + the original subject of the sentence)

If you want to see how that's done with a different example, watch this little video:

We can only form a passive sentence when there is an object (otherwise there is nothing to raise to the patient position in the sentence) but we can form two passive clauses from a ditransitive verb so from, e.g.:
    The head teacher gave all the children a prize
we can form both:
    A prize was given to all the children
    All the children were given a prize.

Even when there is an object, some verbs will not form passive sentences so there are no passive equivalents of, e.g.:
    The car lacks petrol
    They possess enough money
    She suffered a panic attack
    She has no time


Describing a passive sentence

There is a temptation to keep with the terms subject and object when describing passive clauses but that leads to a certain amount of confusion and looseness.  We cannot really describe the book in:
    The book was written by my sister
as the subject because we then have no way to describe my sister.
For this reason, we refer to the object of the active sentence as the patient and the subject as the agent, like this:

Patient phrase Verb phrase Agent phrase
The money was lost by the children
The car will be repaired by the workshop
Anyone who comes late may be refused entry by the manager

Please remember:
A passive sentence does not mean exactly the same as the active sentence.  If that were the case, there would be no need for it at all.

We select the passive because we want to emphasise something the sentence, not just at random.


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about passive clauses, go to:
voice: the essentials
passive voice: the in-service guide

There is also a short lesson for learners on understanding the passive.


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of the passive.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.


Section C: Multi-word verbs


A confusing area

The guide to multi-word verbs on this site is the longest of all because this is a deeply confusing and confused area.
Most websites which try to analyse the area for learners (and, alas teachers) get it wrong so here we will try to be simple.
A multi-word verb consists of more than one word.  It is, if you like, a self-contained verb phrase.
This means that in a sentence like:
    She gets on well with her father
we do not have the verb get operating alone.  What we have is the verb get on which has a different meaning from the verb get.  The object of that verb is her father but in this example:
    I got the money from my father
the object of the verb is the money and from my father just tells us where it came from.  In this sentence, the verb phrase is just the word get and it is NOT get from.

The following are all examples, in red, of multi-word verbs:

  1. They looked up the word in the dictionary
  2. I abstained from voting
  3. I came across some old photographs
  4. She caught up with the rest of the runners
  5. I give in
  6. She complained about the service

Here, we have examples of three types of multi-word verbs:

Phrasal verbs in particular give learners significant problems because:

  1. They do not exist in many languages and even when there is something similar, it often works differently.
  2. Word ordering is a problem because we can have, for example:
        She looked the word up
        She looked up the word

        She looked it up
    we cannot allow:
        *She looked up it
    because that would be a verb (look) with a prepositional phrase telling us in what direction she looked.  It might be rephrased as:
        She looked up the tree and saw the squirrel
    and in that, of course, the verb does not mean consult a dictionary.
  3. Most real phrasal verbs work this way but there are a number which cannot be separated like this and there is no simple rule to apply.
  4. Too many teachers don't know how to analyse phrasal and other forms of multi-word verbs or even how to recognise them.

For much more detail, see the links below.

The problem comes when people are unable to do the analysis carefully enough so we find the following examples described as phrasal verbs:

The moral of the story is not to trust what you read on the web, especially concerning phrasal, prepositional and phrasal-prepositional verbs.
The links below will take you to some reliable guides.


Learn more

This link takes you to the in-service guide to the area:
the in-service guide to multi-word verbs
and this one takes you to the simpler guide:
the essential guide to multi-word verbs


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test to see if you can recognise the three sorts of multi-word verbs and recognise verbs which are just verbs followed by a prepositional phrase or an adverb.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.


Section D: Adverbials


Distinctions first

Unit 3 explained how to recognise and use adverbs and adverbs are a kind of adverbial.
Unit 4 explained how prepositions combine with noun phrases to make prepositional phrases and prepositional phrases are also often adverbials.
That said, all adverbials are not adverbs.
Confused?  Examples will help.

Adverbials are any words or phrases which tell us more about the verb.  For example:
    John walked
is a perfectly comprehensible sentence standing alone.  However,
    John walked quickly to work this morning in the rain because his wife had the car
tells us much more about the verb walk including:
    where John walked (to work, in the rain)
    how he walked (quickly)
    when he walked (this morning)
    why he walked (because his wife had the car).
All the words and phrases in brackets above are adverbials of some kind.  They come in this order:

  1. spatial
        to work
    telling us where or in what direction.
        in the rain
    telling us the surrounding circumstance.
    Both of these, you now know, are prepositional phrase adverbials.
  2. manner
    telling us how.
    You have probably recognised this as an adverb.
  3. temporal
        this morning
    telling us when.
    This is a noun phrase with a determiner, as you know.
  4. causal
        because his wife had the car
    telling us the reason.
    This is a complete clause linked with a conjunction telling us the reason for something.

Here are some more examples of concepts expressed using adverbials which are not adverbs:

  1. She contradicts me from time to time
  2. Mary went into the room without rushing
  3. They enjoyed the party a lot
  4. He looked to the sky
  5. He is coming in a moment
  6. They arrived after time

We can, naturally, express all those ideas with simple adverbs, like this:

  1. She contradicts me sometimes
  2. Mary went into the room slowly
  3. They enjoyed the party greatly
  4. He looked upwards
  5. He is coming soon
  6. They arrived late

3 cases of non-adverb adverbials

Apart from adverbs, English has three main ways of modifying (i.e., adding information to) a verb.


Prepositional phrases

Go over the bridge  

Prepositional phrases are the most common type of non-adverb adverbial.  They are, in fact, even more common as a way of adding information to a verb than adverbs themselves.
They are formed by the preposition (over, under, round, through, by, before, after, to, from etc.) and its complement (or object) which is usually a noun phrase.  Like this:

Preposition Noun-phrase complement / object Example Function
before lunch They went for a walk before lunch a time adverbial adding information to went for a walk
to my house She came to my house a place adverbial adding information to the verb came
round the shopping centre They walked round the shopping centre a place adverbial adding information to walked
in in French She spoke to me in French a manner adverbial adding information to the verb spoke

Often, in almost all languages, sentences will contain a combination of prepositional phrases which each supply different sorts of extra information about the verb so we can have, for example:
    He walked over the hill to my house in the morning
which contains three prepositional phrases:
    over the hill (a prepositional phrase adverbial of place, specifically direction)
    to my house (ditto)
    in the morning (a prepositional phrase of time)

It is important that you know that the prepositional phrases in, for example:
    She went to the house on the corner
are not both adverbials because
    to the house
tells us where she went and is an adverbial but
    on the corner
does not tell us where she went, it tells us where the house is so it is modifying the noun, not the verb.

Prepositional phrase adverbials normally tell us when or where (i.e., they are time or place adverbials).  That is not always the case because they can tell us other things.  For example:
    She muttered under her breath
tell us how she spoke, not where or when.

house next door

Noun phrases

He lives next door  

Noun phrases as adverbials are not very common but there are times when we do not need a preposition and the noun phrase can stand alone to tell us more about the verb.  Here are three examples:
    He arrived yesterday evening (a noun-phrase time adverbial)
    He speaks a great deal (a noun-phrase adverbial of extent)
    They went home (a noun-phrase adverbial of place)

Be careful here not to confuse noun phrases acting as the object of the verb with noun phrases acting as adverbials or modifying another noun.  For example, in:
    She bought the house next door
the phrase next door is not an adverbial, it is modifying the house, not the verb, and the house is a noun phrase but not an adverbial because it is the direct object of the verb.



Spending time where she likes  

A clause, by some definitions, is a group of words which contains at least one verb.

Clauses can act as adverbials in many ways: how, where, when and why.  For example:
    They are doing it the way I told them to
tells us how they are doing it
    I am living where I want to be
tells us where I am living
    She went to the cinema after she left work
tells us when she went
    He asked because he needed the money
tells us why he asked


Learn more

If you want to discover more now about adverbials, go to:
adverbials: the essentials
That guide will tell you very little more than we have covered her.  Most of this section is repeated from it.
If you want to know a lot more, try:
adverbials: the in-service guide


Take a test

To make sure you have understood so far, try a test of your knowledge of adverbials.
Use the 'Back' button to return when you have done that.