F Pellissippi Parkway 2: English Grammar

Welcome to Pellissippi Parkway's Look at English Grammar

Take a look at this sampling of William Z. Shetter's Language Miniatures,a collection of essays about language and how it works. Here I've posted a few that deal with English topics, such as verb tenses, noun compounds, the importance of context, ambiguity, and the meaning of function words like "and" or "the". I think you'll find them both useful and enjoyable.


What follows is a look at how English expresses case - that is, how English shows us what function is being performed by the words in the sentence. Other Indo-European languages do it (mainly) with grammatical endings (for instance, in Russian "psa kusaet chelovek" is "man bites dog" while "pes kusaet cheloveka" is "dog bites man" - it's the endings that tell you). English has virtually no grammatical case endings left; only a few pronouns retain them. But the meaning is conveyed. How? That's what this page (and those to come) will look at.

We'll begin with the basic distinction of Subject and Object: the Actor and the Recipient of the action.

Direct Objects
Transitive and Intransitive Verbs
Indirect Objects

And this page looks at Objects and Passive Voice
And this page looks at Complex predicates
In English, only pronouns change form to show whether they are subjects or objects. 1 Nouns don't change form for objective case, only for number or possession2

The point is, how do you tell what "case" an English noun is in? (There's another question, which is "why do you want to?" That one's easy if you think about it for a minute: in the words of the old reporter's gag, "dog bites man" isn't news, "man bites dog" is.) So, since obviously there has to be a way to tell the biter from the bitee, what is it in English, if the words themselves don't change?

You tell by where it is in the sentence. That seems obvious to English speakers, but plenty of other languages can put words in any order. But in English, the subject (the doer, the "biter") comes IN FRONT OF the verb, and the object (the done-to, the "bitee"), comes AFTER the verb. Sometimes, occasionally, the verbs are left out (usually only in stylized speech, or the second half of an utterance which is parallel):

Fathers love their sons more, and mothers their daughters.
Whether this sentence is true or not, you see that the object is still AFTER the subject, and AFTER where the verb would normally have gone. 3

You'll probably notice that some verbs in English can't have objects, and that some have to or they sound funny. Verbs that CAN have objects are called "transitive" verbs - that is, the action transits the verb from subject to object - John hit the ball. Intransitive verbs don't carry any action across themselves: John sat. Some English verbs even come in pairs, one of which is transitive and one of which is intransitive - these are verbs of position

lie and lay
sit and set
raise and rise
This distinction isn't as clear as it used to be - a sentence like "every night I lay down to sleep" will make some people's teeth hurt while others won't see anything wrong with it at all. Partly this is because only these verbs pair like this, and partly it's because they SOUND so much alike. "Sit yourself down" is a transitive usage of the "intransitive" sit that's fairly colloquial. "Raise" and "rise" are still distinct; you don't really hear "the price of gas raised again last week" or "he'll rise your grades if you try harder." But - espcially as "lay" is the past tense of "lie" as well as the present tense of itself, those two are quite often confused.

Note: other verbs which come in pairs are "perception" verbs. 4

But for most English verbs, the transitive and intransitive forms are the same.

John broke the window. - The window broke.
John ran. - John ran a marathon.
The bird flew. - John flew an F-14 in the war.
Some verbs simply cannot have objects. They are purely intransitive. 5 Purely intransitive verbs include "go, listen, complain, come, die, linger, thrive". These can't take an object at all: their action stays with the subject. 6

A handful of verbs exist which can only take a "object" that is essentially duplicating the verb:

smile a smile
dream a dream
think thoughts
laugh a laugh
And a few have fixed objects that don't change and add nothing - they are almost the same as those above:
cry tears
weep tears
In both of these cases, the object adds no new information, which isn't true of normal objects. It can be left out without altering the meaning. The most you can say for it is that you can put adjectives onto it, instead of putting adverbs on the verb, which will allow you to modify in ways you couldn't otherwise:
smile a half smile -- half smile
laugh a scornful laugh -- laugh scornfully
cry (weep) bitter tears 7 -- weep bitterly
he smiled a smile that was somehow shy and yet inviting at the same time
she wept a few bitter tears before accepting her loss
And occasionally you can modify this object where modifying the verb wouldn't mean quite the same thing, as in
dream a wonderful dream -- dream wonderfully
think deep thoughts - think deeply
On the other hand, some verbs have to have an object to sound right. Normally you wouldn't say "John bought" without saying *what* he bought. Verbs such as "hold, contain, hit, name" - these need objects. They're obligatorily transitive.

So, English is a fixed word order language - Subject Verb Object (doer does done-to), or "Object last". Subjects come in front of verbs and objects follow them. "John bought a book, and George told the truth." Simple.

What about "John bought George a book, and George told Susan the truth"? Not so simple, although as a native speaker of English you have no trouble telling apart the roles that each thing or person is playing in these sentences. The fact is, English has two kinds of objects, Direct and Indirect. Verbs that take both are called ditransitives. (For those of you who know other grammar systems, those are Accusative and Dative cases. For those of you who don't, don't worry about it. Direct and Indirect are fine.) What we've called the "done-to" is the Direct Object, the thing that the action of the verb is directed onto.

John bought a book
George told the truth
Sally sold seashells.
The Indirect Object is the "done-for", the thing or person for whom the action is done, or who receives the object.
John bought a book FOR George = John bought George a book.
George told the truth TO Susan = George told Susan the truth.
Sally sold seashells TO tourists = Sally sold tourists seashells.
As you can see, there are two ways in English to express the Indirect Object. The first is to place in BEFORE the Direct Object. The second is to place it AFTER the Direct Object AND use a preposition (usually either "to" or "for" but rarely "of"). But it is, of course, not entirely that simple.

A few English verbs, such as to describe, to distribute, to explain and to say, can take an indirect object only with a preposition.

He described the accident to the reporters. (But NOT He described the reporters the accident)
The teacher distributed the books to the students. (But NOT The teacher distributed the students the books)
John explained his arrest to George. (But NOT John explained George his arrest)
George said his goodbyes to Susan. (But NOT George said Susan his goodbyes)
Some English verbs can use the Indirect Object alone, with no direct object at all. Many of these are intransitive only, and require the preposition, such as
Talk to me
[note: this one has a "reduplicated object": talk the talk, but otherwise cannot have one - you can't say "talk it to me" only "talk to me about it"]
Listen to Susan
But a small number of verbs can take indirect objects with no direct objects AND without a preposition:
You promised me.
You told me.
Show us.
Ask John
Oddly, these also can take Direct Objects alone:
You promised the moon
You told the truth
Show your work
Ask a question
But you'll notice that all the Direct Objects are things, while the Indirect Objects are living beings.

You'll also notice there isn't much of a way to guess which verbs are which. Why "speak to me" but "tell me"? Why "distribute to the students" but "give the students"? Why can you say "he told the police the facts" but not "he narrated the police the facts"? "He described the events to us" but not "he described us the events"? Honestly, I don't know why, and I doubt anybody else really does, either. It's not as simple as Germanic versus Latinate words, either, or you could say "He said Mary the truth", and you can't. You can certainly tell Mary the truth, but you must say (or speak) the truth TO her.

On the other hand, you can always use a preposition.

Ask John a question = ask a question of John
Show us the money = show the money to us
You told me the truth = You told the truth to me
So why do we have two ways to do it? Probably so that we can choose which gets the emphasis: the direct object, or the indirect one. The emphasis falls on the one that comes last:
I gave my brother money (not a present) -I gave money to my brother (not some stranger)
I bought the children books (not clothes) - I bought books for the children (not for myself)


  1. And not all of them do that: you and it don't. For that matter, she has the same form for object and possessive, her. Pronoun declension is on its way out... and why not? We deal with undeclined nouns quite well, don't we? Back

  2. And for many - most - nouns, that's the same form until you spell it. Dog's - dogs - dogs': they all sound alike, while child's - children - children's don't. You could easily argue that regular English nouns have two forms only. Back

  3. Once you deviate from this pattern, the sentences quickly become murky.
    John Mary loves and George despises.
    This probably means Mary loves John and hates George, with the word order chosen to emphasize the verbs. But it doesn't work well on its own, and there are contexts, you could argue, that would make it mean that John loves Mary and George hates her. Especially poetic contexts. But in normal life, no one talks like that. Back

  4. These don't always pair up by transitivity, the main difference is volition, that is, wanting to. Listen and hear, for instance: you listen on purpose, you hear whether you want to or not. "Listen" happens to be intransitive; "hear" can be either.
    John listens well.
    John hears well.
    John heard me.
    "See" and "look" are the same:
    George looks.
    George sees.
    George sees John.
    But "smell" and "sniff" are both of them both transitive and intransitive. And "touch" is transitive, while "feel" is both. Back

  5. The verb "be" is one of these, but it's a special case - it's "a linking verb". "John is a pilot" isn't really transitive. "Is" has no action to transfer. That's why "It is I" is more "correct" than "it is me". Other linking verbs are "seem, remain, appear, become". But let's leave the linking verbs out of this altogether. Back

  6. What about "go home, come here" and the like? Those aren't objects: they're adverbs. Adverbs come in many flavors (we'll take them up later), and these are adverbs of place. You can't put a noun in the slot and have the sentence be correct:
    Go school.
    Come office.
    The confusion arises because there are a handful of words that are nouns and adverbs both (just as many words are nouns and verbs both, such as "work"). "Home" is one of those. But in a sentence such as "I go home", "home" is modifying the action not receiving it; "I go home/quickly/uphill/every week" are parallel structures; "I bought a home" and "I bought every day" are not. Back

  7. In figures of speech, particularly metaphors, you may see "cry" used as in the old song "Cry Me a River", which means "cry enough tears to make a river for me". It's still really tears being cried. Back

hr Got a question? Send it to me -- kmdavis@erols.com and I'll answer it.


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