What Is a Direct Object? Definition, Examples, & More

If you’ve spent any time studying English grammar, you’ve probably heard about subjects and objects. A subject is a person or thing doing the action in a sentence. Alternatively, an object is a thing on which or to which an action is being done. In English, you have two primary types of objects: the direct object and the indirect object. So, this begs a few important questions. Namely, what is a direct object? How do direct objects differ from indirect objects? Finally, what are some examples of direct objects in sentences?

We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s look at the definition of a direct object:

Direct Object Definition

A direct object is the recipient of the action in a sentence. More specifically, it receives the action of a transitive verb. In English, a transitive verb is a verb that requires an object to make sense. The opposite of a transitive verb is an intransitive verb, which does not require an object. 

Here are some examples of transitive verbs without objects:

  • The girl sends.
  • I buy.
  • We take.
  • They hold.

As you can see, these statements don’t many any sense without a direct object. They force us to either ask questions or alter the original sentences:

  • The girl sends. (What does the girl send?)
  • I buy. (What do I buy?)
  • We take. (What do we take?)
  • She holds. (What does she hold?)

By adding direct objects, we can fix all of these incomplete sentences and answer the questions above:

  • The girl sends a letter.
  • I buy a movie ticket.
  • We take a train.
  • She holds a pizza.

If you want to form a sentence without a direct object, you’ll need to use an intransitive verb. For example:

  • We arrived.
  • The dog jumps.
  • The girl laughed.
  • They will run.

Direct Objects vs. Indirect Objects

A direct object is the recipient of an action, while an indirect object is a person or thing that is affected by the action. This may sound a little confusing, so let’s look at a few examples:

  • I gave my mom a hug.
    • DO: a hug
    • IO: my mom
  • She brought the class a box of doughnuts.
    • DO: a box of doughnuts
    • IO: the class
  • I sent my grandmother a bouquet of flowers.
    • DO: a bouquet of flowers
    • IO: my grandmother
  • They bought me a present.
    • DO: a present
    • IO: me

As you can see, the indirect object always comes between the verb and the direct object. However, you can often reposition an indirect object to become a prepositional phrase by using prepositions like “to” or “for.” Once changed into a prepositional phrase, it is no longer considered an indirect object, but rather an object of the preposition. For example:

  • The teacher taught the lesson to the class.
    • DO: the lesson
    • Object of the Preposition: the class
  • I drew a picture for my little sister.
    • DO: a picture
    • Object of the Preposition: my little sister
  • He threw the baseball to the other player.
    • DO: the baseball
    • Object of the Preposition: the other player
  • They saw a plane fly over the building.
    • DO: a plane
    • Object of the Preposition: the building

Generally, you cannot have an indirect object without a direct object. However, you may encounter some rare exceptions. 

Direct Object Pronouns

Now you have a better understanding of direct objects and how they differ from indirect objects. However, we have yet to address direct object pronouns. So, what is a direct object pronoun? In short, it is a pronoun that takes the place of the person or thing being affected by the action. 

Fortunately, it’s easy to learn object pronouns because they are the same for both direct and indirect objects. Here is the full list of object pronouns in English:

Singular Object Pronouns

  • Me
  • You
  • Him
  • Her
  • It

Plural Object Pronouns

  • Us
  • You
  • Them

How to Use Indirect and Direct Object Pronouns

In order to use an object pronoun, you’ll need to provide enough context so that listeners (or readers) can understand what you’re saying. For example, here are some sentences that contain object pronouns in place of both the indirect and direct objects:

  • We brought us it.
  • He saved us it.
  • She left them her.
  • They gave him it.

Clearly, these sentences make no sense. It’s impossible to know what each object pronoun is replacing. For this reason, it’s better to use an object pronoun to replace either the direct object or the indirect object of a sentence — not both. You can provide the most context by keeping the direct object in its original form and changing the indirect object to a pronoun. For example:

  • We brought them the book.
  • He saved us the cake.
  • She left them the dog.
  • They gave him the missing letter.

Alternatively, if you try to use an object pronoun to replace the direct object and provide context with the indirect object, it doesn’t really fix the problem. The sentences still won’t have enough clarity to make sense and they will be grammatically dubious. For example:

  • We brought the protestors it.
  • He saved our study group it.
  • She left the neighbors her.
  • They gave the man it.

To solve this problem, you can change the indirect objects into prepositional phrases:

  • We brought it to the protestors.
  • He saved it for our study group.
  • She left her with the neighbors.
  • They gave it to the man.

Direct Objects and Asking Questions

One of the easiest ways to identify the object of a sentence is to ask questions. More specifically, if you want to find the direct object, first look at the verb. Then, in relation to the action, ask: who or what is the recipient of the action? If you want to find the indirect object, ask: To whom/what or for whom/what is the action being done? Let’s look at a few examples:

  • My father sent his friend a message.
    • What did my father send? My father sent a message. Therefore, “a message” is the direct object.
    • To whom did my father send a message? My father sent a message to his friend. Therefore, “his friend” is the indirect object.
  • I read my daughter the book.
    • What did I read? I read “the book.” 
    • To whom did I read the book? I read the book to “my daughter.”
  • She told me the bad news.
    • What did she tell? She told “the bad news.”
    • To whom did she tell the bad news? She told the bad news to “me.”
  • They threw the cat a toy.
    • What did they throw? They threw “a toy.”
    • To what or to whom did they throw the toy? They threw the toy to “the cat.”

Conclusion

So, what is a direct object? It is simply the primary recipient of an action. Once you learn how to identify direct objects, it’s easy to find them in all sorts of sentences! Not only will this help you understand sentences better, but it will also help improve your knowledge of English grammar!

If you’d like to hear a native English speaker using direct objects in everyday conversation, be sure to subscribe to the Magoosh Youtube channel or join our Facebook Group today!

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a freelance writer and former English teacher. He enjoys traveling the world, watching movies, and caring for his three toy poodles.
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