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Direct Objects in English (with Examples)

Updated on
July 28, 2021
Grammar
Direct Objects in English (with Examples)

In English grammar, a direct object is a word or phrase that receives the action of the verb. In the sentence The students eat cake, the direct object is cake; the word eat is the verb and cake is what’s being eaten. 

Direct objects can get tricky, especially when used with indirect objects. In this quick guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about how to use them correctly, including an explanation of direct vs. indirect objects, and we’ll also include plenty of direct object examples. 

But first, let’s dive deeper into the essential question:

What is a direct object?

A direct object is a noun that receives the action of the verb. Don’t get the direct object confused with the subject—the noun that performs the actions—or the verb itself. 

Direct objects usually answer the questions “what?” or “whom?” Let’s take another look at the direct object example above.  

The students eat cake

Ask yourself, “What did the students eat?” The answer is the direct object, which in this case is  “cake.” Let’s try a new direct object example: 

The family hugged their dog. 

What’s the direct object? Ask yourself, “Whom did the family hug?” The answer, of course, is “dog.”

Transitive vs. intransitive verbs

Not all verbs use a direct object. Some verbs, like laugh and sit, can’t use direct objects because it doesn’t make sense—you can’t laugh something or sit someone; that’s gibberish. 

Verbs that take a direct object are called transitive verbs, and those that do not are called intransitive verbs. It’s often difficult to tell the two types apart; sometimes intransitive verbs are followed by a prepositional phrase or adverbial phrase, which are different from direct objects.  

We all laugh at Anania Williams. 

In this sentence, Anania Williams may seem like the direct object, but the preposition at shows that it’s really a prepositional phrase. Because laugh is intransitive, the sentence “We laugh Anania Williams” is incorrect. We need a prepositional phrase to explain whom we’re laughing at. 

However, it is correct to say, “We enjoy Anania Williams.” In this case, the verb enjoy is transitive, so we can make Anania Williams a direct object, no preposition needed. 

Sometimes a verb can be both transitive and intransitive, depending on the usage. If a verb has more than one meaning, some uses could be transitive while others are intransitive. 

We drove to the mall. (intransitive)

My sister drove us to the mall. (transitive)

The best way to tell the difference is by experience, but if you’re unsure whether a verb is transitive or intransitive, be sure to check a dictionary. If you’re in a pinch, try asking “what?” or “whom?” after the verb—if you get an answer, then it’s transitive, and if you don’t get an answer then it’s intransitive. This is particularly useful for words that can be both transitive and intransitive, like play: 

She played drums in a heavy metal band. 

She played what? She played drums. Here, “play” is transitive. 

The band played last night. 

The band played what? Because there’s no answer, it means here “play” is intransitive.

Direct object phrases and clauses

Direct objects aren’t always just one word; sometimes they are entire phrases or even clauses. These phrases always act collectively as nouns, so aside from standard noun phrases, they’re often relative clauses (clauses that begin with a relative pronoun like “what”) or gerund phrases (noun phrases that start with gerunds). 

The foul ball hit a car parked outside

Don’t forget what your mother said

English professors love naming every tiny word in a sentence

You can sometimes use the infinitive form of verbs as a direct object, but be careful you don’t confuse the to in an infinitive with the to in a prepositional phrase. 

Everyone wants to eat later.

Direct object pronouns

English uses two different pronouns to refer to the same person, depending on whether the pronoun is used as a subject or an object. For example, if you were talking about yourself as the subject of a sentence, you would use I, but if you were talking about yourself as the object, you would use me. 

With direct objects, always use the object pronoun. If you’re unfamiliar with the differences, you can review subject and object pronouns here, but there’s a quick chart as a reminder below. 

SUBJECT PRONOUN OBJECT PRONOUN
I me
you you
he/she/they/it him/her/them/it
we us
you (plural) you (plural)
they them

Direct objects vs. indirect objects

One of the most confusing topics in English is understanding the difference between direct objects vs. indirect objects. While direct objects answer the questions “what?” or “whom?” about the action of the verb, indirect objects answer questions like “to whom?” or “for what?”

My brother loaned me five dollars. 

In this sentence, loaned is the verb and my brother is the subject (because he’s doing the loaning). The direct object is five dollars because it answers “what is being loaned?” The indirect object is me because it answers “to whom are the five dollars being loaned?”

Just like direct objects, indirect objects are only used with transitive verbs. (Intransitive verbs never take an object, either direct or indirect.) While direct objects are necessary for transitive verbs, indirect objects are optional. 

Direct objects and linking verbs

One last rule about direct objects involves linking verbs like be, seem, and feel. Linking verbs seem to use direct objects, but the word following the linking verb is really called a complement, which is something a little different. A complement is often an adjective, but when it’s a noun, it’s easy to confuse it for a direct object. 

They are an expert at procrastination.

In this example, “an expert” may seem like a direct object, but it’s really a complement, as it explains more about the subject, in this case, “they.” The verb are, a conjugation of be, is a linking verb, not a transitive verb. 

Direct object examples

Let’s look at some direct object examples from literature and pop culture, so you can see how they work. The direct objects are underlined. 

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.”

—Napoleon Hill

“‘Let me check my calendar’ is the adult version of ‘let me ask my mom.’” 

—Noelle Chatham

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” 

—Wayne Gretzky

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” 

—Confucius

“A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.” 

—Bob Hope

“Let us sacrifice our today so that our children can have a better tomorrow.” 

—A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

“I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize [that] I should have been more specific.” 

—Lily Tomlin

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”

—Robert Frost

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” 

—Monty Python

This article was originally written in 2015 by Ann Edwards. It’s been updated to include new information.

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