What Is an Object?

One cannot travel too far in grammar without coming upon the term object. Verbs have objects, prepositions have objects, even participles, infinitives, and gerunds have objects. So what are they and why?

An object, in its derivation, is something that is thrown in my way. The letters ject stem from a Latin verb meaning to throw (we see those letters also in the words inject and subject), and the prefix –ob is a Latin preposition meaning before or in front of. An object, then, is something I have to confront, something in front of me which I have to deal with, whether literally, like that gas bill on the desk over there, or figuratively, like a goal or purpose, as when I might say, my object was to win the sale. What was in front of me, so to speak, was the idea of winning the sale.

In grammar, the term object principally means a noun, or a group of words that is being used as a noun in any of the many ways a noun can be used as an object. I can hope to say one day soon, for example, that I paid the gas bill, and in saying so, the noun bill (or more fully gas bill) is an object of the verb paid. Or I could say that I remember now that I already paid that gas bill last week, and here the object of the verb remember is the entire group of words that I already paid that gas bill last week. We call that word group a clause because it contains a subject (I) and verb (paid) of its own, and that clause—all nine words together—is standing as the object of the main verb remember. In fact, the terminology of grammar goes one step further and names such a group of words a noun clause: a clause that functions as a noun.

The verbs in these two examples, paid and remember, are both transitive verbs, verbs whose actions are targeted or directed at an object, whether that object is in the form of a single word or a clause. The fact that a verb can govern an object is an important grammatical phenomenon to remember, because placing the object too far from its transitive verb can wreak havoc on the clarity and good order of a statement. The simple grammar and logic of I remember now that I already paid the bill are disturbed if too much emotion intervenes: I remember now that, I can’t believe that these bills just never stop, I paid that gas bill already. English sails under the flag of proximity: in the main, words that work together stay close together, keeping the reader’s attention focused and thereby maintaining the energy and clear direction of a sentence.

But there is (and you knew there would be) an exception to a transitive verb expressing its object. I could very well say or write, for example, Oh, I remember now, and in doing so only be implying, not explicitly indicating, the object of the verb remember. In doing this, we are said to be using the transitive verb absolutely, which means in isolation, separately from its object. What we get for this is a diction closer to everyday conversational language, where the obvious is left to remain obvious and unstated.

Objects are a fundamental component of language because language bisects, trisects, quadrisects our experience, on and on into a million billion things about which we want to say something. According to logic and the expository language that expresses it, the world is made up of things, and when those things stand in some relationship to other things, we have a world, both grammatical and psychological, of objects, things which, sometimes for the good and sometimes not, stand in our way.


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