Gwynne’s Grammar Tip No 3

13 Oct|Nevile Gwynne

Clearly they hadn't heard of learning through play back in the Middle Ages

TODAY we publish Mr Gwynne’s teachings on the subject of the direct object. Thank you, by the way, to Mr Gwynne for alerting us to a review of his book which appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. Gwynne’s Grammar was reviewed alongside Prof Steven Pinker’s new book on language, The Sense of Style. The review, by Joseph Epstein, includes the wonderful line: “Mr Gwynne makes no effort to charm; Mr Pinker perhaps overestimates his own charm.” Gwynne’s Grammar comes out best in the end because, as Mr Epstein puts it, “I would find making use of Mr Pinker’s loosening of the rules, as Robert Frost said of free verse, like playing tennis without a net. I feel a certain elegance in what I have been taught, and still take to be, correct English.”


THE direct object is perhaps the most difficult of all grammatical terms to define really clearly, so here are no fewer than four definitions of it! Choose which one you prefer to learn by heart. (i) The direct object is that which undergoes what the subject of the sentence or the clause does.

(ii) The direct object is the person or thing to which an action or feeling is directed.

(iii) The direct object is the person or thing directly acted on by the subject of a sentence or clause.

(iv) Perhaps clearest of all, though more indirect: The direct object is the part of a sentence or clause which follows the main verb if that verb is a transitive verb, and which corresponds to the subject of a passive clause or sentence.

To illustrate, step-by-step, the second half of that last definition:

In the sentence ‘The pupil is learning grammar’, the word ‘grammar’, which is the object in that sentence, would become the subject of the sentence if the sentence was rearranged to use the passive tense while keeping exactly the same meaning: ‘Grammar is being learnt by the pupil’.

The word ‘object’ is derived from the Latin ‘ob’, meaning ‘in front of’, and, once again, the past participle of ‘iacere’. An object is ‘thrown in front of’ the mind.

This is an extract from Gwynne’s Grammar (Ebury Press).