What Is a Direct Object? | Definition & Examples

Sentence and word structure updated on  February 28, 2024 4 min read

A direct object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of a verb. The direct object often answers the question “what?” or “whom?”

For example, in the sentence “Cass writes novels,” the direct object is “novels.” It answers the question “What does Cass write?”

Direct object examples
I walked the dog this morning.
Bring the newspaper to me.
Where did you put it?

What is a direct object?

A direct object is the thing or person that the verb acts on. It is different from the subject, which is the noun or pronoun that performs the action. Direct objects can be identified by finding the verb of a sentence and then asking “what?” or “whom?”

Direct object examples
Stefan is eating pizza. [What is Stefan eating? Pizza.]
Maggie called her mom. [Whom did Maggie call? Her mom.]

Transitive vs intransitive verbs

Some verbs (e.g., “sleep,” “walk,” “leave”) do not take a direct object because they are not used to express acting on a person or thing. These verbs are known as intransitive verbs. They are never followed by a direct object, though they can be followed by adverbs, adverbial clauses, or prepositional phrases.

Intransitive verb examples
Lucy slept on the floor.
She sneezed.
Prices are increasing daily.

Other verbs—known as transitive verbs—require a direct object. These verbs are incomplete if they are not followed by a direct object.

Transitive verb examples
I dropped.
I dropped my keys.

Juan is borrowing.
Juan is borrowing my skateboard for three days.

Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on the context. These verbs are known as ambitransitive verbs.

Ambitransitive verb examples
Lila is eating (ice cream).
Terrell ran (the race).
Maryn reads (books) frequently.

Direct objects vs indirect objects

Verbs in English can also take indirect objects. Direct objects answer the question “what?” or “whom?”, while indirect objects answer the question “for whom?” or “to whom?”

Direct and indirect object examples
Darby gave me the book. [What did Darby give? The book. To whom did he give it? Me.]

I bought Eleanor a bracelet. [What did I buy? A bracelet. For whom did I buy it? Eleanor.]

If an indirect object is used, a direct object will always accompany it. Thus, indirect objects are only used with transitive verbs. However, transitive verbs do not always require an indirect object. A direct object can be used on its own.

Direct objects with and without indirect object examples
She brought Erin a cake.
She brought a cake.

The caterers sent Travis a bill.
The caterers sent a bill.

Note
Often, sentences with indirect objects can be reworded with prepositional phrases instead. In these cases, the sentence is not considered to have an indirect object.

She brought Erin a cake. [“Erin” is the indirect object.]
She brought a cake to Erin. [“Erin” is the object of the preposition “to.”]

Direct object pronouns

In English, different forms of personal pronouns are used depending on whether a pronoun is functioning as a subject or an object. So, for example, we say, “I love my sister” but “My sister loves me.” Direct objects (and indirect objects and objects of prepositions) always use the object pronoun form.

Subject and object pronouns

Subject Pronoun

Object Pronoun

I

Me

you

you

he/she/they/it

him/her/them/it

we

us

they

them

Note
You may have noticed that we often use “whom” when discussing objects. That is because “whom” is an object pronoun and “who” is a subject pronoun. So, to determine the direct object of the sentence “Kai brought them to the party,” we ask, “Whom did Kai bring?”

The distinction between “who” and “whom” is not very common in daily conversation. However, it is important in academic writing.

Direct objects vs complements

Linking verbs (e.g., “be,” “seem,” “become”) do not take direct objects. Instead, the word that follows a linking verb is called a complement.

A complement can be an adjective (referred to as a predicate adjective) or a noun (referred to as a predicate nominative). When it is a noun, it can be easy to mistake it for a direct object, but this is not the case.

Linking verb and complement examples
Elsa is a chemist.
I want to become a runner.
Percy seems tired.

Phrases and clauses as direct objects

Direct objects can be more than one word; in fact, sometimes they are whole phrases or clauses. Because these phrases act as nouns, they are often:

  • noun clauses (which typically start with a relative pronoun like “that” or “which” or a subordinating conjunction like “if” or “whether”)
  • gerund phrases (which start with an “-ing” word)
  • infinitive phrases (which start with the “to” form of a verb)

Phrases as direct objects examples
I said that I don’t want to go.
Mei loves running in the park.
Do you want to eat at home tonight?

Note that these phrases still answer the question “what?” or “whom?” For example, “What did I say?”

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Rhetoric

Commonly confused words

Fallacies

Symbolism

Possum vs opossum

Straw man fallacy

Play on words

Weather vs whether

Post hoc fallacy

Juxtaposition

Inter vs intra

Fallacy of composition

Paronomasia

To vs too

Tu quoque fallacy

Allusion

Subjective vs objective

Either-or fallacy


Frequently asked questions about direct objects

What is the difference between a direct object and an indirect object?

A direct object is a noun or pronoun that is acted on by a verb. It answers the question “what?” or “whom?” An indirect object is a noun or pronoun that receives the direct object. It answers the question “for whom?” or “to whom?”

For example, in the sentence “I gave Aliyah the book,” “the book” is the direct object and “Aliyah” is the indirect object.

An indirect object is always accompanied by a direct object, but a direct object can be used on its own.

What is a direct object pronoun?

Pronouns (words that stand in for nouns) can have different forms depending on whether they are acting as a subject (e.g., “I,” “we,” “they”) or an object (e.g., “me,” “us,” “them”).

When a pronoun is used as the direct object of a sentence, the object form is always used (e.g., “Martin sent them”).

The most common object pronouns in English are “me,” “you,” “us,” “him,” “her,” “it,” and “them.”


Tags

Kayla Anderson Hewitt

Kayla has a master's degree in teaching English as a second language. She has taught university-level ESL and first-year composition courses. She also has 15 years of experience as an editor.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.