A Guide to Indirect Objects
  • 5-minute read
  • 19th March 2023

A Guide to Indirect Objects

Issues in English grammar can present various difficulties to ESL students and native speakers alike. Some tricky grammar points that may seem insignificant at first glance have more of an impact on our writing the more we look at them.

Let’s consider this sentence:

Sarah gave Luke an apple.

Which word is the indirect object? If you said Luke, you’d be correct! But wait. Why is Luke the indirect object? And what the heck is an indirect object, anyway?

In this post, we provide a guide to indirect objects in English. You’ll learn what they are and how to identify them in sentences, and we’ll show you some examples. Even if you’re familiar with indirect objects, this post will likely teach you some new things about them.

What Is an Indirect Object?

Before we can answer this question, let’s review the standard word order in an English sentence:

subject + verb + object (SVO)

The subject is a noun, and the verb is an action word. The object is affected by the action the subject is performing. We use two kinds of objects in English: direct and indirect. The direct object is the noun directly affected by the action the subject performs, and the indirect object is the recipient of the verb’s action. Consider the following example:

Wayne passed George the salt.

In this sentence, Wayne is the subject, passed is the verb, and the salt is the direct object that the subject (Wayne) is affecting. Therefore, George is the indirect object, as he is the recipient of the verb’s action. You might also think about it as “Wayne passed the salt to George.”

How Do I Find an Indirect Object?

The best way to find an indirect object is to ask, “Who or what is receiving the direct object?” Once you identify the verb and the direct object, you can easily find the indirect object. What is the indirect object in this sentence?

Harry owes Billy a meal.

If you chose Billy, you’re right! This is because Billy (the indirect object) is the one affected by the verb “owes.”

Direct and Indirect Objects

To have an indirect object, a sentence must contain a direct object. However, a sentence can have a direct object without having an indirect one. However, if a sentence contains only one object, that’s going to be a direct object.

 As indirect objects rely on direct ones, we use indirect objects only with ditransitive verbs (verbs that are able to take both a direct and an indirect object). Transitive verbs can’t use indirect objects. In the following example, “asked” is the ditransitive verb:

Mary asked Joe a question

Mary is the subject of the sentence. She is asking a question (the direct object) to Joe (the indirect object). Compare this to a transitive verb, e.g., “Mary ate the apple.”

Ditransitive verbs need both a direct object and an indirect one (or a direct object and an object complement). You might say “Mary asked Joe,” but what did she ask him? Similarly, “Mary asked a question”—about what?

Indirect Object Pronouns

Do you know when to use I and not me? English has two sets of pronouns: subject and object pronouns. As the names suggest, subject pronouns are used when they are the subject of a verb (“I asked Joe a question,” for example) and object pronouns are used in most other instances, including when they are the indirect object affected by a verb (“Mary asked me a question”).

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If you’re unfamiliar with subject and object pronouns, here’s a quick overview:

Subject PronounObject Pronoun

As you can see, we can use it and you as subject or object pronouns. However, ESL students and native speakers both often have difficulties with who vs whom. Similar issues arise with whoever vs whomever. This grammatical quandary is becoming less of an issue in modern English. However, just in case you’re in danger of encountering a grammar enthusiast, here are a couple of examples:

To whom should I ask this question?

I could ask this question to whomever wants to answer it.

The First-Person Object Rule

Native English speakers usually have no trouble with personal pronouns. However, problems sometimes occur with the first-person pronoun “I.” People can misuse this I in phrases such as “my wife and I.” We want to emphasize here that the pronoun I can’t be an object. For example:

He gave my wife and I a present.
He gave me and my wife a present.

If you’re ever unsure which one to use, take the other (noun) indirect object out: “He gave I a present” sounds very wrong.


 Here are some key pointers regarding indirect objects:

●  The SVO relationship (subject + verb + object) is important to an understanding of indirect objects.

●  Indirect objects can’t appear alone in a sentence; a direct object must accompany them.

●  We can’t use “I” as an object.

 For visual learners, we suggest checking out this video on indirect objects.


1. How do I find an indirect object in a sentence?

You can find an indirect object by identifying who or what is receiving an item (the direct object). “Carrie brought a bag”–for/to whom? The answer to this question is the indirect object.

2. What’s the definition of an indirect object?

Merriam-Webster succinctly defines an indirect object as “the person or thing that receives what is being given or done: the person or thing that the action of a verb is performed for or directed to.”

3. How do I know if I’m correctly using indirect objects in my writing?

We strongly recommend that you proofread your writing. However, if you’re uncomfortable doing this yourself, we suggest you consider the proofreading experts at Proofed! They can check your writing for grammar and punctuation errors and ensure perfect spelling. As part of this, they check for the correct use of transitive and ditransitive verbs, indirect objects, and subject and object pronouns. Consider submitting a 500-word document for free today!

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