English grammar is filled with confusing terms. None are probably as misunderstood or hard to grasp as functions of nouns, which tend to be abstract. It is enlightening to learn the etymology behind grammatical terms, the ideas of which are very simple. Learning why a word was made in the first place can often demystify that word! In my last post I wrote about the grammatical subject; I will now move on to discuss the direct object, probably the second most important function that a noun can have.
Let’s continue working with the sentence from the last post:
Tommy ate a honking pickle.
Recall that a function of a noun is what that noun is doing in a sentence: all nouns have jobs to do, otherwise they wouldn’t be there in the first place. Tommy, once again, is the subject of this sentence because he was the one who did the action of eating; no verb can act by itself, but rather it needs a noun to “do” its action. The only other noun in this sentence is the word “pickle.” This noun clearly did no action, so cannot be the subject of the sentence. So what is it?
In order for Tommy to have done any eating, he had to have something to eat! As you can see, he ate a pickle. That is, the object to which he directed the action of his eating was that honking pickle–presumably nervous and alarmed since it was about to be eaten. What do you suppose the object to which an action is directed is called? Yes! Unsurprisingly so, it is a:
Definition: the direct object is another function of a noun, which is simply the object to which the action of a verb is directed. A subject often has to do its action to something, or direct its action towards an object.
To think about the logic behind this a little further, let’s say that you like to toss; to do that, you just can’t toss, you have to toss something … or there can be no tossing! Let’s take a closer look at that idea :
I am tossing. This makes sense, but it would be good to know what is being tossed. This sentence really needs a direct object, that is, an object to which the tossing is directed, so …
I am tossing an alligator. There, that’s better–now there is something being tossed! That something is called the direct object. Of course, the object to which the tossing was directed could have been a pen, a ball, or any number of nouns, but since you like to make your tossing memorable, you practice on large reptiles.
Etymology: Often why a grammatical term was formed in the first place helps to understand what the word means at a deeper level. The term “direct object” comes from the Latin directum, “steer, drive, direct” and the word “object,” whose root words mean “thrown in the way.” Therefore, that thing “thrown in the way” of one’s sight, touch, etc. and “driven” or “steered” or “directed” in a certain way by whatever action is being done to it is the idea underpinning the “direct object.”
Now, let’s have a little test to make sure that you have a handle on what a “direct object” is:
Find the direct objects in the following sentences (answers are way down below, but don’t peek until you’re sure of those answers!). Think to yourself: towards what object is the action of the verb in the sentence being directed? Note that words in red are nouns acting as subjects:
1. Edna gave Edith Peter’s porcupine.
2. Edith gave the prickly porcupine back to Peter by putting it under his plush pillow.
3. Philbert purchased kale chips at his local Piggly Wiggly grocery store.
4. Once upon a time King Arthur delightedly married the beautiful princess Guinevere.
5. Will Janet ever climb a tall mountain with her pet goat in tow?
6. Josh and James flew to the moon and found green cheese everywhere!
7. I don’t want to do any more grammar problems!
So, “direct objects” are important since many actions could not be performed in the first place without them! In my next post on the word origins of grammatical terms I will discuss the indirect object. Stay tuned!
1. porcupine; 2. porcupine; 3. kale chips; 4. princess Guinevere; 5. mountain; 6. cheese; 7. problems