In the sentence "They told me that" or "They told me so" OR even much better sentence from one of the provisional answer "She taught me Spanish"

  • Which one is the direct object? (My guess is "that" and "so" and "Spanish")
  • Which one is the indirect object? (My guess is "me")

I hope to get some confirmation and this is really language agnostic, I mean to talk about the semantic underlying in the text. Thank you.

  • 1
    Your guess is correct. The addressee usually corresponds to the indirect object whereas the patient is expressed by the direct object.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 10:04
  • First, *They told me it is ungrammatical. The Dative Alternation does not apply with a pronoun as the direct object. They told me the answer is OK, and so is They told the answer to me and They told it to me. Second, what's the direct object and what's the indirect object depends on what theory you're following. In Relational Grammar, for instance, Dative changes the status of an indirect object to direct object, which can then be passivized. So the ones without to don't have indirect objects, though they still have Goal and Trajector NPs, while the ones with a to-phrase do. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 15:43
  • @johnlawlerinexile Changed "They told me it" to other sentence as you suggested. The question remains the same.
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 4:09
  • Approximately synonymous verbs in different languages (or even in the same language) can take different argument patterns, so I'm not sure if you can get an answer that is completely language agnostic. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 4:13
  • @sumelic Why not, different argument patterns simply mean different grammar and syntactic rules, the conceptual meaning and idea are the same.
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 4:39

3 Answers 3


As Atamiri points out, it is the direct object in the first example and me is the indirect object in the second example. The traditional explanation is that the direct object is acted upon directly, and the indirect object is affected by the action more or less indirectly. But be aware that these traditional explanations do not always work. There are instances where it is difficult to view the one or the other object as indirect or direct, e.g. She taught him Spanish -- in this case, it is difficult to view him as "indirect", since the the "him" is being directly influenced by the teaching.

  • But him is indeed indirect object and Spanish direct object, correct?
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 11:22
  • I'm not sure about Spanish, since I don't know Spanish. But in languages that have case such as German, the notions of direct and indirect object are associated closely with case (accusative vs. dative). Accusative typically marks the direct object, and dative the indirect object. Some languages mark indirect objects with a preposition, such as with "to" in English: "I gave it to him". My guess is that Spanish also prefers to use a preposition to mark indirect objects. Direct objects are probably not marked with a preposition in Spanish. But I'm just guessing. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 12:02
  • @InstructedA Is it grammatical to say "She taught Spanish to him?" If it is well-formed, then I'd say that "him" is indirect object. The lexical mapping of "to teach" varies greatly across languages. In Spanish the person is in the dative (le enseñé francés a ella). The same in Bavarian ("wir müssen den Kindern mehr Deutsch lernen (sic!)"), though what Stoiber wanted to say in standard German would be a double accusative construction: "die Kinder Deutsch lehren". In Russian the mapping is the other way around: я научил его чувству юмора (I taught him-ACC sense-DAT of humor). It's quite a mess.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 13:18
  • @Atamiri I think this means that human language's grammars are still not rigorous enough that they don't provide syntactic marker to distinguish the difference. So again taking all the syntactic comfort away, I think we have to rely on semantic to realize that the objects are things other than subject and predicate. There are three types: direct object, indirect object, prepositional object. Indirect object receives direct object somehow and requires the presence of direct object. Hopefully, this cleans up the mess. If you can come up with an example that this can't clean up, please write here
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 13:52
  • @InstructedA The notion of object isn't semantic. There's a mismatch between syntax and semantics. In many IE languages for a NP to function as a direct object is for it to be able to serve as the subject of the passive form of the sentence. Obviously this criterion doesn't work for English, which is the reason why some speak of primary and secondary objects (which in turn doesn't make sense in many other languages).
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 14:01

Since English has no way to mark the accusative case explicitly, the only way to tell the direct object is to find an object without a preposition before it. In your sentence neither object has a preposition, so there is no way you can deny that both objects are direct, at least formally, judging by their form and the syntax of the whole sentence. Because of this, English is a language that can have two direct objects of a verb, and that can easily be proved: She taught him Spanish has 2 direct objects, if you remove one of them you can easily see that:

She taught him. - "him" is the direct object.

She taught Spanish. - "Spanish" is the direct object.

If you abstragate from the formal grammar and look at the meaning of the words and at the situation described in the sentence, it is easy to find out what the action is directed at and who it is intended for, but anyway this difference is not expressed in the English sentence. The order in which the objects are put after the verb doesn't tell about their nature, if a verb has two direct objects we can easily transform the sentence so that to make each of the objects indirect:

She taught Spanish to him. - "to him" is the indirect object.

She taught him about Spanish. - "about Spanish" is the indirect object.

That is why the very idea of a distinction between the direct vs. indirect object becomes vanishingly vague when we speak about English.

  • Thank you for the elaborated answer. However, I believe that your last sentence She taught him about Spanish does not have Spanish as indirect object. Spanish is simply a prepositional object anchored on the preposition about. In similar sentence "They talked with me about him" does not have any indirect object. Both me and him are simply prepositional objects in my view.
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 11:57
  • @InstructedA - It's all about terminology, if you call "about Spanish" a prepositional object, why not call "to him" a prepositional object too? If you look at the sentence really wide, objects are everything which is not the subject and not the predicate. "I went to London" - "to London" can well be looked at as an indirect (or call it prepositional) object. Again, I tell you, languages with the morphology reduced like in English give you a great room for arguing about the kinds of objects which are all the same not marked in any way.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 12:34
  • In English it seems better to speak of primary and secondary objects.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 13:21
  • @YellowSky I was thinking in the line that if there is an indirect object, there should also be a direct object as well.
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 13:43
  • @InstructedA - All I wrote was intended to show you how vague the difference between the kinds of objects is in English.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 0:51

The direct object is the noun phrase immediately after the verb. That's the one that can be passivized (usually).

They told me that. (I was told that.)
They told me so. (?I was told so.)
She taught me Spanish. (I was taught Spanish.)

Some people also allow omission of the "to" of an indirect object in passives (which is confusing):

They told that to me. (That was told (to) me.)
She taught Spanish to me. (Spanish was taught (to) me.)

The indirect object is the noun phrase after "to". I am partial to the Relational Grammar account which derives the double object construction by promoting an indirect object to a direct object (and demoting the former direct object to Chomeur).

  • This seems counter to the consensus I have got that me in your examples are not direct objects, but indirect
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 5:34
  • @InstructedA, see my note (and Lawler's earlier comment) about the Relational Grammar theory, according to which the "me" in "They told me that" is a direct object which was converted from an original indirect object. "They told that[d.o] to me[i.o.]" ==> "They told me[d.o.] that[no grammatical relation]"
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 5:56
  • Ok, then I will have to have my own grammar theory then. In my theory, the me is indirect object and the that is direct object. That makes thing much better than having a no grammatical relation on that.
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 7:33
  • 1
    Greg is right. "Direct object" and "indirect object" are not defined by meaning, but by their syntax. The "Dative Alternation" describes the difference in structure between the synonymous They told me that and They told that to me. If you just mean "receiver" (as opposed to "trajector"), then they're the same -- me is the receiver and that the trajector in both cases. But "object" is a syntactic relation, not a semantic one. You can't define "object" by what it means -- only by how it behaves in a sentence. Passive can apply to direct objects only, for instance. Commented Mar 19, 2015 at 17:24
  • @johnlawlerinexile You can have passive for indirect object. Ex: I was given a book by them from They gave a book to me.
    – InformedA
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 2:55

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