In English grammar, an indirect object is the word or phrase that receives the direct object. In the sentence The teacher gave the students cake, the indirect object is the students. The direct object is cake, and the students are the ones who eat it.
If you’re confused about what an indirect object is, you’re not alone! Indirect objects are particularly difficult to understand because they’re so closely related to direct objects. This guide clears everything up, with a lot of indirect object examples so you can see how they work.
What is an indirect object?
Indirect objects are easier to understand if you know what direct objects are. A direct object is the noun that receives the action of the verb. The indirect object, however, is the noun that receives the direct object itself.
Embiid passed Simmons the ball.
In this sentence, passed is the verb and Embiid is the subject because he’s the one doing the passing. The direct object is the ball because it is the thing being passed. Simmons is the indirect object because he receives the ball, the direct object.
Indirect objects can only be used in sentences with direct objects. However, a sentence can have a direct object without an indirect object (an example of this is simply saying Embiid passed the ball).
Because they rely on direct objects, indirect objects can only be used with transitive verbs. To make things more confusing, not all transitive verbs can use indirect objects—only a special type called ditransitive verbs can use indirect objects.
How do you know if a verb uses an indirect object? Below are some of the most common ditransitive verb examples. Remember, ditransitive verbs don’t need an indirect object, and you can still use them alone or with just a direct object.
How to find an indirect object
You can find an indirect object by asking yourself “who or what is receiving the direct object?” In the example sentence above, who is receiving the ball? Simmons gets the ball in the pass, so Simmons is the indirect object.
Indirect objects can only be placed directly after the verb and before the direct object.
It’s easy to get indirect objects confused with the objects of prepositions, especially when they both answer the question “who or what is receiving the direct object?” We could rewrite our example sentence above in this way:
Embiid passed the ball to Simmons.
This is grammatically correct and has the same meaning as the original sentence. Technically speaking, though, Simmons is not an indirect object, but the object of an independent preposition. Same meaning, different mechanics.
The choice between using a proper indirect object or using a prepositional phrase depends on your writing style. Using indirect objects is more direct and efficient (it uses fewer words), recommended for fast-paced and minimalist writing styles. Using prepositional phrases, though, puts more emphasis on the object and lets you control where in the sentence it appears. This can help build suspense by placing the object at the end of the sentence.
Indirect object phrases
Indirect objects can be either an individual noun or a noun phrase.
I loaned him some money.
In this example, him is the indirect object because he receives the money (the direct object). But what if we got a little more descriptive . . .
I loaned my tall, bald friend of ten years some money.
In this case, the indirect object is the entire phrase my tall, bald friend of ten years.
Indirect object pronouns
Ever wonder about the difference between the words I and me? English uses two different sets of pronouns: subject and object pronouns. Like direct objects, indirect objects always use object pronouns.
In case you’re unfamiliar with subject and object pronouns, here’s a quick rundown:
|Subject Pronoun||Object Pronoun|
|you (plural)||you (plural)|
Moreover, if the subject and the indirect object are the same, it’s best to use a reflexive pronoun (myself, yourself, themselves, etc.) as the indirect object. In this way, the subject can transfer a direct object back to themselves.
I asked myself, “Why am I here?”
He promised himself [that] he wouldn’t cry.
Indirect objects vs. direct objects
The difference between indirect objects and direct objects is notoriously difficult, especially for those whose primary language isn’t English. The two types of words are so similar after all, not to mention that they’re placed next to each other in a sentence.
It helps to remember that indirect objects need direct objects, but direct objects don’t need indirect objects. So aside from prepositions, if there is only one object in a sentence, it’s a direct object.
If there are two objects, ask yourself, “which is receiving the action of the verb and which is receiving the other object?” The direct object receives the verb’s action, while the indirect object receives the actual direct object. If you can identify one, it’s easy to spot the other!
Indirect object examples
To understand indirect objects, it helps to see them used in real life. Here are some indirect object examples from literature and pop culture. The indirect objects are underlined and the direct objects are in bold.
“Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.”
—Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
“Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”
—Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer
“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
—J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man.”
—Billy Joel, “Piano Man”
“Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it).”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland