Direct Object

by Craig Shrives

What Is a Direct Object? (with Examples)

The direct object of a verb is the thing being acted upon (i.e., the receiver of the action).

Examples of Direct Objects

Here are some examples of direct objects (shaded):
  • Play the guitar.
  • Every actor played his part.
  • The crowd will cheer the President.
  • We can climb the hill and fly the kite.

How to Find the Direct Object of a Sentence

You can find the direct object by finding the verb and asking what? (or whom?). For example:
direct object
Here are two more examples:
  • She fed the cat.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = fed)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = the cat)
    (Therefore, the direct object is the cat.)
  • Craig will read the book tomorrow.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = will read)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = the book)
    (Therefore, the direct object is the book.)
Here is a short video to explain the term direct object.

Phrases and Clauses Can Be Direct Objects

The tip above also works when the direct object is a phrase or a clause. For example:
  • Toby loves cooking scones.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = loves)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = cooking scones)
    (Therefore, the direct object is cooking scones.)
  • She thought that the contract had ended.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = thought)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = that the contract had ended)
    (Therefore, the direct object is that the contract had ended.)
  • The constable described what he saw at the scene.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = described)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = what he saw at the scene)
    (Therefore, the direct object is what he saw at the scene.)
  • The cat wants to eat our goldfish.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = wants)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = to eat our goldfish)
    (Therefore, the direct object is to eat our goldfish.)
    (Note: This direct object has its own verb with its own direct object. (Question: to eat what? Answer: our goldfish.))

Only Transitive Verbs Have Direct Objects

When a verb has a direct object, it is called a transitive verb. Some verbs do not have a direct object. They are known as intransitive verbs. For example:
  • Malcolm fell very badly.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = fell)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = Nothing. You can't fall something.)
    (Therefore, there is no direct object. The verb to fall is intransitive.)
  • Joan is sleeping at the moment.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = sleeping)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = Nothing. You can't sleep something.)
    (Therefore, there is no direct object. The verb to sleep is intransitive.)

Do Not Confuse Complements with Direct Objects

If you ask what? with a linking verb (e.g., to be, to hear, to look, to seem), you will find a verb complement not a direct object. For example:
  • Peter is happy.
  • (Step 1. Find the verb = is)
    (Step 2. Ask What? = happy.)
    (However, on this occasion, happy is not the direct object. This is because is (i.e., the verb to be) is a linking verb.)
Read more about linking verbs. Most sentences will have a direct object. In general, direct objects do not cause native English speakers to make mistakes because native English speakers are great at changing subjective-case pronouns (e.g., I, he, she) to objective-case ones (e.g., me, him, her), even if they've never heard those terms. However, this process does not come so naturally when learning a foreign language, which is when you really do need to know about direct objects.

That said, native English speakers are not so great at using the right version of who/whom when it features as a direct object. Here are two good reasons to think a little more about direct objects.

(Reason 1) This is good stuff for learning a foreign language.

In English, direct objects take the objective case. This only affects pronouns. It just means that words like I, he, she, we, and they change to me, him, her, us, and them.

While this might come naturally in English, it might not come so naturally when learning a foreign language, especially as their articles (a, an, the) and adjectives are likely to change too when they're used as direct objects.
Englishone small dogI have one small dog.
(There is no change.)
Germanein kleiner HundIch habe einen kleinen Hund.
(The article and adjective change if it's a direct object.)
Bosnianjedan mali pasImam jednog malog psa.
(The article, adjective, and noun change if it's a direct object.)
In English, direct objects take the objective case. When learning a foreign language, you will likely learn that direct objects take the accusative case. Read more about case in grammar.

(Reason 2) Don't confuse who and whom.

Use whom if it's a direct object. For example:
  • You love whom? correct tick
  • The newspaper attacks whom? correct tick
It's the same deal with whoever and whomever. Use whomever for a direct object (or any object for that matter).

Writers never confuse pairings like he/him and they/them. Well, they're no different from the who/whom pairing.

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