Episode 355: February 7, 2013
by Mignon Fogarty
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Valentine’s Day is coming up, so I thought it would be a good time to say, “I love you.” Not only because I love you, but also because “I love you” is a handy little sentence for remembering the difference between a subject and an object.
Why Do You Need to Know the Difference Between a Subject and an Object?
The first question you should be asking is why you should care about the difference between a subject and an object. Those seems like pretty dry, boring grammar terms.
The reason they matter is that you often have to know whether you’re dealing with a subject or an object to be able to choose the right word. The difference between “who” and “whom,” “lay” and “lie,” and “sit” and “set” all come down to answering the question “Subject or object?” And all the complaints I get about people using “I” when they should use “me” and vice versa also come down to knowing a subject from an object.
Subjects Are Often at the Beginning of a Sentence
Typical English sentence order is subject-verb-object, or as the experts like to call it S-V-O. That means you often find the subject at the beginning of a sentence and the object at the end (or at least after the verb), and this is true of our little sentence “I love you.” “I love you” is a subject-verb-object sentence.
What Is a Subject?
Subjects do something or are something. In this case, the subject is “I” and is doing some loving.
What Is an Object?
Objects receive the action or have something done to them. In our sentence, “you” is being loved. It’s the target of the love.
If I love you, you are the object of my affection, and the word “you” is the object in my sentence.
Examples of Subjects and Objects in Simple Sentences
Let’s look at some more examples:
Buddy chewed the bone. (“Buddy” is the subject. He’s doing the chewing. “The bone” is the object. It is getting chewed.)
Mary built an igloo. (“Mary” is the subject. She’s doing the building. “The igloo” is the object. It’s getting built.)
Note how those two sentence also follow the simple subject-verb-object pattern, so the subject is at the beginning and the object is at the end.
Finding the Subject in Odd Sentences
Not all sentences follow the S-V-O pattern though, so you can’t always just assume the subject is at the beginning. For instance, one kind of sentence that doesn’t follow the typical pattern is the expletive sentence.
“There are three mice making noise,” is an example of an expletive sentence. It looks like it might be a regular S-V-O sentence since it starts with the pronoun “there,” which is followed by a verb, but the subject in that sentence is actually “mice.” It’s the mice that are doing the action of the verb. They are making something: noise.
It’s a tricky topic, and I covered it in much more detail in episode 278 a couple of years ago.
I’ve also talked about Yoda grammar before, as in Yoda from Star Wars. Yoda often uses object-verb-subject order in his sentences. For example, Yoda said, “If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are ... a different game you should play.”*
Let’s consider the simplest part: “a different game you should play.” “Play” is clearly the verb, so to find the subject, ask who is playing. It’s “you.” You should play a different game, so “you” is the subject. And what are you playing? A game. So that is the object.
Just remember that when you want to find the subject, ask who or what is doing the action of the verb.
Direct Object Versus Indirect Object
To a make things a little more complicated, there are two types of objects: direct objects and indirect objects.
A sentence can have both or it can have a direct object alone, but it can’t have just an indirect object alone. You have to have a direct object before you can have an indirect object.
In the sentences we’ve considered so far, all the objects have been direct objects. They were the direct thing or person being acted on. But those were very simple sentences. You need an indirect object when the direct object alone doesn’t tell the whole story. The indirect object is the person or thing that receives the direct object.
So if "Mary built an igloo" isn’t the whole story, and you want to tell us that Mary built someone an igloo. We need an indirect object. For example,
Mary built Jose an igloo.
“Mary” is the subject and “an igloo” is the object, just like before, but now you know that “an igloo” is the direct object, and “Jose” is the new indirect object. He’s the recipient of the igloo.
Martin sent Krista a letter.
“Martin” is the subject. He’s doing the sending. “The letter” is the direct object. It’s getting sent. And “Krista” is the indirect object. She’s receiving the letter.
To summarize, when you need to find the subject, look for the person or thing that is doing the action of the verb (e.g., the loving, chewing, building, or sending); and when you need to find the direct object, look for the person or thing that is having that action happen to them (e.g., you, the bone, the igloo, or the letter). If there is an indirect object, it’s the person or thing receiving the direct object (e.g., Jose or Krista).
Underline the subject, draw a circle around the direct object, and shade over the indirect object (if there is one).
1. Sarah gave Chester a noodle.
2. Lucy colored pages.
3. Benson lit matches.
4. He sang Ursula a song.
5. They wrote him a message.
6. Placer sent her a yellow rose.
7. Trey made funny noises.
8. She smugly flipped her hair.
9. Laura rowed the boat.
10. Renaldo licked the lollipop.
11. (Bonus) Lilly danced.
Starting a Sentence with “There Is”
“Who” Versus “Whom”
“Lay” Versus “Lie”
“Sit” Versus “Set”
Answers to Practice Sentences
|| Direct Object
|| Indirect Object
|| a noodle
|| a song
|| a message
|| a yellow rose
|| funny noises
|| her hair
|| the boat
|| the lollipop
* This Yoda sentence actually uses object-subject-verb order.