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General Writing and Grammar Help/Grammar/Direct Obj-Indiirect Obj


QUESTION: Paradigm:
She served her guests lunch.
DO=lunch IO=her guests.

Now, what if:
She served her guests.
Does “her guests” remain an IO, with an implied DO (lunch)? But: is there such a thing as an “implied DO”?  (She fed her guests [something].)
OR: Does “her guests” become a DO in itself?  This is then equivalent to "She served lunch." If "her guests" shifts to DO, would this not also permit, say, She served the crocodiles her guests. (!?)

Try it with, say:
She fed the horses hay.
She fed the horses. (if DO–>She fed the crocodiles horses?)

She asked Sam a question.
She asked Sam.
Whither Sam–IO (still) or DO?

Favoring the retention of her guests/the horses/Sam as Indirect Objects: pure logic because the meaning is as in the original sentences.
Favoring the latter, the sentence makes sense if we understand guests/horses/Sam as DOs -- we know what is *meant,* but must subconsciously reconstrue the verbs-- and I find no references to “implied direct object” in English.

What say you? And why?

Thank you so much!

ANSWER: She served her guests.

Yes, this is an IO.  You are correct also in noting that the DO is "understood." Maybe we know what it is - - lunch, to use your example - - but maybe not.  It could be a subpoena or a lethal blow to the head!  


Does “her guests” become a DO in itself?

No, in this construction =her guests= is always the IO.  Otherwise, we have "Sweeney Todd"!!!


In the horses/crocodiles examples, =crocodiles= is the IO and =horses= the DO.  Implicit here is also =to the=.

She fed horses to the crocodiles.


As regards Sam, again Sam is the IO.  If not stated, it is understood what the "something" is because this sentence would be in association with at least anther one.

I wondered if the crocodiles were eating the horses?  I asked Sam.


Returning to Barber Todd, if we know the sentence is about this musical, then we know =her guests= is the direct object!  If not about the barber, then =her guests= is the IO.  We may or may not have a DO in the sentence; it might be implied, and we can figure it out by the context.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you so very much for your prompt, delightful, and thoughtful response!  
As a follow-up, can you provide me with any source for "implied direct object"?  My search has been unsuccessful, and I have colleagues who insist that a) all of the originally indirect objects (the guests, horses, and good ol' Sam in the sentences above) become direct objects once the original DO is dropped because b) there is no such thing as "an implied direct object and c) you can't have an IO without a DO anyway.
Can you (continue to) help?
Thanks so much,

ANSWER: You are very welcome!

As to a source, such as a grammar book, that would mention an implied direct object:  I don't know of any.  Not sure it's even been codified (tho we did it!!).  =Understood= is the term I learned.  

I disagree with your colleagues.  There are plenty of examples of "implied/understood [whatever]" in English grammar.

Here's one:
He's much better at shooting billiards than I [am].
Because of the implied verb, =I= must be used, not =me=.  (Mourn with me with loss of this distinction!  Oh, wait.  I meant mourn with I.)

Just because a word/phrase/whatever is understood/implied, the other words in the sentence do not change function!


Maybe your colleagues would be mollified if you used "understood" instead of "implied"?  That way, the leap of faith lies with the listener, not the creator of the sentence.

Or maybe they just need a good kick in the pants or a quart of Pinot Gris.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: And thank you once again (with an understood =I= as the subject, to be sure).

However, =other= implied/understood terms isn't the issue and doesn't mollify.  We can have understood subjects (as with imperatives or the case above), inferred verbs (as in your example; and mourn with you I do on this lazy newly-sanctioned lapse*), implied threats ("If you don't set the table right now..."), represented nouns ("Which sweater do you like best? The pink is my favorite," with =pink= representing =pink sweater=), and probably a few others relating largely to imagery.  But to stake a claim (as I would like with you to do) that a direct object can be implied/understood needs additional ballast, don't you think?

I'm even hard-pressed to come up with a lucid sentence that has an IO but no DO, unless, of course, we confidently wave the IO flag on all the sentences above regarding guests, horses, and Sam from which we've eliminated the DOs. (Gimme! is the best that comes to mind, but formal English it ain't, n'est-ce pas?)

And how do we find consistency (or don't we?) when we've a sentence like: =She served her guests royally= - a minor variation on =She served her guests.=  Is =her guests= still an IO?  (See above regarding subconsciously reconstruing the verb's application.)

So, can we craft a stronger argument for DO-less sentences with IOs in order to bolster the case for implied/understood DOs?  Is there some Chomskian turn (or anyone else's) that explains this element of "deep grammar"?  

Awaiting your (ri)post(e),

*Off on a tangent, I've read a few contemporary novels by Chris Bohjalian who's fallen for it with a thud.  There are writers whose prose I prefer to his [prose, and not: to him].

Well, =She served her guests royally= means she served her guests (presumably for dinner or at least for nuncheon) and did so in a fashion as befitted to king or queen (or other assorted hangers-on).  We do not know who ate them royally.  So, yes, =her guests= remains the IO unless the diners are relatives of Alfred Packer.


I really do think =understood= is better than =implied= because it assumes that everyone would know what word/s is/are/was/were omitted and assumed to be recognized as implicit in the sentence's meaning by reader or listener.  =Implied=, on the other hand, is a word in the sentence that could be deduced; no guarantee is given how difficult that would be or if there are any group of people who could not deduce the missing word/s.

Tell your colleagues they have to be mollified, and that's that.  Send them to me if they give you further trouble!  If they start to raise objections (why would we be surprised?), tell them that Martha Beth, editor of dissertations at the Univ of Fla. and teacher of grammar, says so.  Harumph.  (We assume they know dissertations are at the doctoral level...)


As we discussed before, ~what~ she served her guests would have been indicated somewhere else nearby.

The spit boy brought in the boar's head, which beast appeared to have been killed by the book of Aristotle found shoved down his throat.  She served it.... and so on.


As I said before, the non-presence of a DO in a sentence does not change the part of speech of any IO in the sentence.  

Hmmm.  Wonder what part of this your colleagues do not [want to] understand?  Maybe they are just arguing for the sake of it; perhaps one is a former Philadelphia lawyer who can't shake the passion.

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Martha Beth Lewis


I will answer questions having to do with grammar, plurals, punctuation, capitalization, mood, person, tense, and so on, as well as word usage and word choice. If you want a quick answer to a specific question, particularly if you wish to use formal American English for business or academic purposes (MLA), I can give you a timely response. I also can address word choice, clarity, structure, and similar concerns involving English as a second language. If you want advice of a deeper editorial nature (e.g., substantive [line] editing), please consult an Expert who offers this sort of assistance; I do not offer this sort of assistance.


I was employed as an editor for the graduate school at a major U.S. university and specialized in dissertations. I have over 200 publications in professional journals, consumer magazines, and newspapers. I am the author of five books and numerous syllabi in an arts field. I also am a freelance line editor, copy editor, and proofreader (over 40 years), and I have written or edited countless community organizations' newsletters and promotional materials.

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