[MUD-Dev] English grammar thoughts

Travis Casey efindel at earthlink.net
Tue Oct 23 21:56:23 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

On Friday 19 October 2001 10:29, Par Winzell wrote:

> So, first, what I think I know: in English, the direct object is
> the answer to the question 'What did you put? wave? fill? nod?' 
> and thus invariant under word-order juggling -- in

>   'wave my sword at the sky'

> and

>   'wave at the sky with my sword'

> the direct object is the sword in both cases. If this were true,
> it'd mean that direct objects can have prepositions in front of
> them, which I had previously thought they could not.

This is all correct, as far as I've been able to determine.

(A quick note here: as far as I've been able to find out reading up
on grammar the last couple of days, if a verb takes a direct object,
it *must* be able to take it without a preposition.  Thus, "the sky"
cannot be the direct object of "wave", since "wave the sky" makes no

> The other object is easier -- I'm going to call it 'indirect' even
> in those cases where apparantly it might more correctly be
> referred to as 'object of the preposition'.

The "indirect object" is supposed to be the object (in the
grammatical sense, that is) which is indirectly affected by the
action of an action (or technically a "transitive") verb.  It may
*also* be the object of a preposition at the same time.

A few people have spoken up here to say that they don't think an
object of a preposition can also be a direct object or indirect
object at the same time.  I disagree.  I've been doing some digging
on sites that explain English grammar to try to find references, and
I've found a few:

    "It is possible for a sentence containing an indirect object to
    be rewritten by placing a preposition before the indirect
    object. When this is done, the original indirect object can be
    regarded either as the indirect object of the verb, or as the
    object of the preposition.
  For example, the sentence 

    We gave the child a toy,

  can be rewritten as follows:

    We gave a toy to the child.

  In the rewritten sentence, child can be regarded either as the
  indirect object of the verb gave, or as the object of the
  preposition to."


Further down on the same page:

  "A few English verbs, such as to describe, to distribute, to
  explain and to say, can take an indirect object only when the
  indirect object is preceded by a preposition. In the following
  examples, the direct objects are printed in bold type, and the
  indirect objects are underlined.  e.g.

     He described his experiences to the reporters.
     They distributed the leaflets to their friends.
     We explained the situation to the participants.
     She said something to her teacher."

On another page:

  "Direct object. The direct object is the person or thing that 
   is affected by the action of the verb.

     I borrowed some money.
     We have just ordered a new printer.

   Indirect object. The indirect object is the receiver of the 
   action. Sometimes the indirect object contains to or for.

     I gave the parcel to John.
     Erica will lend me some money tomorrow."


I haven't found anything that definitely says that a direct object
can have a preposition, but I don't see any logical reason why it
couldn't, and I haven't found anything that says one *can't* have a
preposition either.  :-/

> Next, I believe the following configuration parameters would
> specify a verb's expressive possibilities completely:

>   Evoke:               Forbid/Allow/Require
>   Direct Object:       Forbid/Allow/Require
>   Direct Preposition:  Forbid/Allow/Require

What's "Direct Preposition" supposed to be?  This isn't too clear...

>   Indirect Object:     Forbid/Allow/Require

>     [ I think there's always a preposition before the direct object ]

Nope... there's not always a preposition before either the direct or
the indirect object.  Consider, for example:

  "Give Joe the book."

This has both a direct object (the book) and an indirect object
(Joe), but no prepositions at all.

All verbs which can take an IO without a preposition require the IO
to come before the DO in the sentence in such a case.

>   List of Direct Object Prepositions:    [list]
>   List of Indirect Object Prepositions:  [list]

> Does this rhyme with anybody elses design?

I started to use a design almost exactly like this once -- verbs
could have direct and indirect objects, and know what to do with
them.  The verb could tell the parser what preposition(s) it
expected to come before a direct or indirect object.  Ultimately,
though, I had to give it up, because there were too many cases that
it couldn't handle properly.  Consider, for example:

  put the book in the bag on the table
     This one can't be solved at a purely grammatical level -- it
     could mean "put (the book) in (the bag on the table)", but it
     could also mean "put (the book in the bag) on (the table)".

  look at the bag
  look in the bag
  look on the bag
  look under the bag
     "The bag" is the direct object of all of these -- but each
     means something different.  You could solve this by handling
     "look at", "look in", etc. as all being different verbs, but
     IMHO it makes more sense to allow the verb to do something
     different depending on what preposition is used.  That's
     especially true in this case, since all of these would likely
     share a great deal of code.

  drop the ball in the bag
     This could have "the ball" as a direct object and "the bag" as
     an indirect object, or it could have the single direct object
     "the ball in the bag".  Again, this one can't be done purely
     through grammar.

  kiss mary on the cheek
     You could consider "the cheek" to be the direct object here and
     "mary" to be the indirect object, but that's not likely to work
     very well.  The simplest thing here would be to consider "mary"
     to be the sole object of the sentence, and "on the cheek" to be
     a modifying phrase indicating how one is going to kiss Mary.

  kill the orc with my sword
     "The orc" is the direct object here, since it is the thing
     being killed.  "My sword" would be considered a prepositional
     object in English.  (Some languages actually have an
     "instrumental case" which indicates that an object is the
     instrument of a verb.  Modern English does not, and therefore
     always uses a preposition to do this.)

Because of these sorts of things, I ultimately gave up trying to use
a system to figure out direct objects and indirect objects, and
instead used a system where I gave a set of patterns for each verb.

     give <OBJECTS> to <LIVING OBJECT>


     drop <OBJECTS>

     get <OBJECTS>

     say <STRING> to <LIVING OBJECT>
     say <STRING>

     kill <LIVING OBJECT> with <OBJECT>
     kill <LIVING OBJECT>

     look at <OBJECT>
     look for <OBJECT>
     look <DIRECTION>
     look <STRING>
     look around

The phrase for an <OBJECT> could include a description of its
position: that is, "the sword in the box" could be an <OBJECT>, for
example.  A few special "objects" that always existed were defined
in the parser -- "the floor", "the ground", and so on.  Also, "from"
was defined to be a special preposition, which would act as the
"default preposition" of a container -- thus, "get sword from table"
would be considered the same as "get sword on table", and "get sword
from box" would be considered the same as "get sword in box".  (At
least, if I remember right... don't remember if I ever got to
implementing that last bit, or still just had "from" matching any

> Finally, does anybody know what the relationship is between the
> notions of on one hand direct and indirect objects and the object
> of the preposition, and on the other hand noun cases like
> nominative, accusative, dative, etc?

If you're going to be looking for writing on English grammar, try to
find stuff written by linguists, rather than by grammarians or
English teachers. Linguists focus on *descriptive* grammar, which
attempts to describe the language as it is used; grammarians and
English teachers tend to focus on *prescriptive* grammar, which
attempts to set rules for how the language *should* be used.

In searching, I found:


which seems to be looking at English from a descriptive grammar
point of view.

       |\      _,,,---,,_     Travis S. Casey  <efindel at earthlink.net>
 ZZzz  /,`.-'`'    -.  ;-;;,_   No one agrees with me.  Not even me.
      |,4-  ) )-,_..;\ (  `'-' 
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