9 The synthetic grammar of English – the conventional wisdom with verbs

So far, we have looked at the conventional wisdom with subjects, objects and so-called complements. Let’s now look at the conventional approach with verbs within a synthetic grammar of English.

Just so that we are on the same ‘page’, in the following example sentence, pushed is the verb:

The train pushedverb the passenger carriage up the hill.

A verb describes an action (such as push, see, make), or a state (as in be, seem, feel) or an event (e.g. understand, decide):

He saw the match.

I feel silly.

I understood what she meant.

Verbs are often sub-characterised by the number of objects they are used with. Their capacity to connect with objects is defined in terms of their transitivity or lack of it, as discussed now here.

Intransitive use

A verb is intransitive when it does not have an object, as in these examples:

He cried.

He left.

They met finally.

(Note that finally is not an object here – it is an adverbial – we’ll come on to adverbials soon.)

Transitive use

A verb is transitive when it is used with an object, as here:

He cried a tear.

She left the room. OR He left a note.

I bought an almond croissant.

It is often said that there are intransitive verbs and transitive verbs. But, few verbs are purely intransitive in their use (examples are the verbs rain and snow). Note, for example, above, that cry/cried and leave/left can be intransitive or transitive in their use.

Ditransitive use

Here, the verb is used with two objects. The second object is what is received and the first object is the recipient:

She gave him a present.

She sent him a message.

The recipient object is usually called the indirect object and what is received is usually called the direct object. We can, of course, transform these sentences to reverse the order of what follows the verb:

She gave a present to him.         She sent a message to him.

Often, it is said that expressions like to him, in these cases, are still objects and the verb is still ditransitive, but this seems questionable. Starting with the preposition to, they look formally like adverbials (to be discussed soon) rather than like an object.

Double transitive use

Here, the verb is followed by an object and the object is followed by a complement of an object:

She rates your idea feasible.

Because the notion of complement is extremely vague, it seems, currently, to be easy to treat feasible as a complement and as an object. This seems highly questionable thinking, as does the whole notion of the double transitive. It seems okay to see feasible as a complement in that it complements your idea, but not as an object. The answer to this apparent conundrum is to have a much better defined notion of the complement.

Tritransitive use

Though very infrequent, there are cases where a verb is used with three objects. Here is an example:

I bet him ten pounds that she will win.

In this example, him is an indirect object describing the recipient of the bet, while ten pounds is the direct object describing what is to be potentially received and that she will win is the object of bet (what the bet was about); note that we can just use the object after bet all on its own, confirming that it is an object, as in:

I bet (that) she will win.

However, sometimes, adverbials are confused with objects and this can lead to a verb being perceived as being used in a tritransitive way, when it is not, as in:

He sold Jack the beans for ten pounds.

The fact that the preposition for starts this component of the sentence gives it away that this component (for ten pounds) is not an object but is, in currently conventional parlance, an adverbial. And, there is further evidence for this through looking at the passive-transformation potential of the sentence. An object can only be an object if it can become the subject of the passive. Thus, we can say:

Jack was sold the beans for ten pounds.

The beans were sold to Jack for ten pounds.

But, we can’t say grammatically acceptably:

For ten pounds were sold Jack the beans. OR Ten pounds were sold Jack the beans for.

It could be countered that the final part of the earlier sentence (I bet him ten pounds that she will win) can also not readily become the subject of the related passive transformation, but it can even if it is not that elegant:

That she will win was bet him ten pounds.

So, this passive-transformation test confirms that the final part of that sentence is indeed an object.

David Lott

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