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In linguistics, an object is any of several types of arguments. In subject-prominent, nominative-accusative languages such as English, a transitive verb typically distinguishes between its subject and any of its objects, which can include but are not limited to direct objects, indirect objects, and arguments of adpositions (prepositions or postpositions); the latter are more accurately termed oblique arguments, thus including other arguments not covered by core grammatical roles, such as those governed by case morphology (as in languages such as Latin) or relational nouns (as is typical for members of the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area). In ergative-absolutive languages, for example most Australian Aboriginal languages, the term "subject" is ambiguous, and thus the term "agent" is often used instead to contrast with "object", such that basic word order is often spoken of in terms such as Agent-Object-Verb (AOV) instead of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). Topic-prominent languages, such as Mandarin, focus their grammars less on the subject-object or agent-object dichotomies but rather on the pragmatic dichotomy of topic and comment.
In English traditional grammar types, three types of object are acknowledged: direct objects, indirect objects, and objects of prepositions. These object types are illustrated in the following table:
|Direct object||She sees the dog|
|Indirect object||I gave the man salt|
|Object of preposition||You fish for salmon|
Note that indirect objects are frequently expressed as objects of prepositions, complicating the traditional typology; e.g. "I gave salt to the man."
Category Example Noun (phrase) or pronoun The girl ate fruit. that-clause We remembered that we had to bring something. Bare clause We remembered we had to bring something. for-clause We were waiting for him to explain. Interrogative clause They asked what had happened. Free relative clause I heard what you heard. Gerund (phrase or clause) He stopped asking questions. to-infinitive Sam attempted to leave. Cataphoric it I believe it that she said that.
A number of criteria can be employed for identifying objects, e.g.:
- 1. Subject of passive sentence: Most objects in active sentences can become the subject in the corresponding passive sentences.
- 2. Position occupied: In languages with strict word order, the subject and the object tend to occupy set positions in unmarked declarative clauses. The object follows the subject.
- 3. Morphological case: In languages that have case systems, objects are marked by certain cases (accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, etc.).
Languages vary significantly with respect to these criteria. The first criterion identifies objects reliably most of the time in English, e.g.
- Fred gave me a book.
- a. A book was given (to) me.—Passive sentence identifies a book as an object in the starting sentence.
- b. I was given a book.—Passive sentence identifies me as an object in the starting sentence.
The second criterion is also a reliable criterion for analytic languages such as English, since the relatively strict word order of English usually positions the object after the verb(s) in declarative sentences. The third criterion is less applicable to English, though, since English lacks morphological case, exceptions being the personal pronouns (I/me, we/us, he/him, she/her, they/them). For languages that have case and relatively freer word order, morphological case is the most readily available criterion for identifying objects. In Latin and related languages, direct objects are usually marked with the accusative case, and indirect objects with the dative case. However, object marking may also follow non-syntactic rules, such as animacy. In Spanish, for example, human objects have to be marked by the preposition a (as an example of differential object marking).
Verbs can be classified according to the number and/or type of objects that they do or do not take. The following table provides an overview of some of the various verb classes:
Transitive verbs Number of objects Examples Monotransitive One object I fed the dog. Ditransitive Two objects You lent me a lawnmower. Tritransitive Three objects I'll trade you this bicycle for your binoculars. Intransitive verbs Semantic role of subject Examples Unaccusative Patient The man stumbled twice, The roof collapsed. Unergative Agent He works in the morning, They lie often. Transitive Example Ergative The submarine sank the freighter. Object deletion We have already eaten dinner. Intransitive Example Ergative The freighter sank. Object deletion We have already eaten.
The distinction drawn here between ergative and object-deletion verbs is based on the role of the subject. The object of a transitive ergative verb is the subject of the corresponding intransitive ergative verb. With object-deletion verbs, in contrast, the subject is consistent regardless of whether an object is or is not present.
In sentence structure
Objects are distinguished from subjects in the syntactic trees that represent sentence structure. The subject appears (as high or) higher in the syntactic structure than the object. The following trees of a dependency grammar illustrate the hierarchical positions of subjects and objects:
The subject is in blue, and the object in orange. The subject is consistently a dependent of the finite verb, whereas the object is a dependent of the lowest non-finite verb if such a verb is present.
- For descriptions of the traditional distinction between subject and object, see for instance Freeborn (1995:31) and Kesner Bland (1996:415).
- "What is a Direct Object?". Summer Institute of Linguistics. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
- "What is an Indirect Object?". Summer Institute of Linguistics. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
- Deal, Amy Rose (2016). "Syntactic Ergativity: Analysis and Identification". Annual Review of Linguistics. doi:10.1146/annurev-linguistics-011415-040642.
- Dikken, Marcel den (2003-12-29). "A comment on the topic of topic–comment". Lingua. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2003.11.005.
- Barlow, Russel. "'Give' constructions in Papuan languages: How useful is the notion of ditransitivity?". University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Missing or empty
- Dryer, Matthew S. "Primary objects, secondary objects, and antidative". Missing or empty
- See Biber et al. (1999:126) for a similar list of characteristics that identify (direct) objects.
- Concerning the passive as a diagnostic for identifying objects, see for instance Freeborn (1995:175) and Biber et al. (1999:126).
- For a classification of transitive verbs along the lines used here but using different terminology, see for instance Conner (1968:103ff.).
- Mita, Ryohei (2009). "On Tritransitive Verbs". In John Ole Askedal (ed.). Germanic Languages and Linguistic Universals. The development of the Anglo-Saxon language and linguistic universals, 1. John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 121–. ISBN 90-272-1068-3. OCLC 901653606. Retrieved 22 July 2019. quoting Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (15 April 2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. p. 219. ISBN 978-0-521-43146-0. OCLC 1109226511. Retrieved 22 July 2019.
- Concerning ergative verbs, see for instance the Collins Cobuild English Grammar (1995:155f.) and Biber et al. (1999:155f.).
- The term object-deletion verb is adopted from Biber et al. (1999:147). Such verbs are also called ambitransitive.
- Dependency trees similar to the ones produced here can be found in Ágel et al. (2003/6).
- Ágel, V., L. Eichinger, H.-W. Eroms, P. Hellwig, H. Heringer, and H. Lobin (eds.) 2003/6. Dependency and valency: An international handbook of contemporary research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
- Biber, D. et al. 1999. Longman Grammar of spoken and written English. Essex, England: Pearson Education limited.
- Carnie, A. 2013. Syntax: A generative introduction, 3rd edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Collins Cobuild English Grammar 1995. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
- Conner, J. 1968. A grammar of standard English. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Freeborn, D. 1995. A course book in English grammar: Standard English and the dialects, 2nd edition. London: MacMillan Press LTD.
- Keenan, E. and B. Comrie 1977. Noun phrase accessibility and universal grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 8. 63–99.
- Kesner Bland, S. Intermediate grammar: From form to meaning and use. New York: Oxford University Press.