Why doesn't tell need a preposition in sentences like the following?

I told him.  =  Isubject toldverb <why no preposition> himobject

I think it has something to do with it being an action verb but I'm not sure.

  • Why would it need a preposition? A lot of verbs out there don't need one.
    – user1513
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 6:28
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    There is another classification of verbs - transitive and intransitive. Transitive verb takes objects directly after them. And "tell" is one of such verb - a transitive verb. And that is why "tell" don't take any preposition. Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 7:23
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    @SandeepDhamija The key to understand this is not through the concept of "active verbs", but direct/indirect objects. There are many posts on ELL that discuss direct objects and indirect objects in enough details already. I couldn't find the best one I can remember; however, you can try these answers first: ell.stackexchange.com/a/707/3281, ell.stackexchange.com/a/6555/3281. Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 7:28
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    Actually it's nothing concerning me, but I found your words above rather offensive. I think what they said is actually quite true. In this case, you find an explanation, a distinction that does help, but in some cases I'm afraid the best answer you would receive is "That's just how people use it".
    – user1513
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 10:11
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    @SandeepDhamija You are actually asking a different question to the one you think you are asking. "Why does it sometimes need a preposition and sometimes not?" is just going to be opinion based. What you actually want to know, it seems, is "When does it need a preposition and when not?" That is a more answerable and practical question and a much better fit for the SE format. If you edited your question to that it would be at a much lower risk of closure. Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 11:34

1 Answer 1


You actually have the question backward! :) ... you should be asking When does an Indirect Object require a preposition?

(For those unfamiliar with the term, an Indirect Object is a secondary object of a transitive verb: it designates the entity which receives the Direct Object or for whose benefit the action is performed on the Direct Object.)

Subject - Verb - Indirect Object - Direct Object

This construction is the standard order in all di-transitive situations—those in which the verb takes both an Indirect Object and a Direct Object.

I told the police my story. OR I told them my story. I gave my son a bicycle. OR I gave him a bicycle.
I built my niece a treehouse. OR I built her a treehouse.

Sometimes, however, the Indirect Object has to fall after the Direct Object. When that happens, the syntactic relationships are no longer clear, so the Indirect Object is ‘marked’ with a preposition. There are two circumstances when this happens:

  • When the Direct Object is a single pronoun it is too ‘light’ for its role to be clear, so it is moved immediately after the verb:

    I told the police it. → okI told it to the police.
    I gave my son it. → okI gave it to my son.
    I built my niece it. → okI built it for my niece.

  • When the Indirect Object is ‘heavy’, more than a couple-three words long, it draws focus for too long and it makes it difficult to recognize the Direct object, so it is moved after the Direct Object:

    I told the police who came after I called 911 my story.→ okI told my story to the police who came after I called 911.
    I gave Richard, my ten-year-old son going to school just a few blocks away, a bicycle. → okI gave a bicycle to Richard, my ten-year-old son going to school just a few blocks away.
    I built my niece, my sister's daughter Lily, a treehouse. → okI built a treehouse for my niece, my sister's daughter Lily.

    These ‘heavy’ Indirect Objects may not seem all that hard to process; but that is because you are encountering them in writing, where you have the advantages punctuation to clarify structure and of seeing the entire sentence at once. In speech, where your hearer must process your sentence as it emerges, it isn’t so easy, and these constructions are driven by speech patterns.

Two general “rules” are operating here.

  • The first is that we like to keep the core constituents of a sentence—the Subject, Verb, Indirect Object and Direct Object—as close together as possible. That drives ‘heavy’ constituents towards the right end of the sentence, where their length provides the least interruption.

  • The second is that we like to put the ‘new’ information in a sentence at the right end. That drives pronouns towards the left, because pronouns are almost always ‘old’ information—they usually refer to entities which have already been introduced.

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