Under the entry dedicated to the verb “pay” within Longman Dictionary of Contemporary, it is stated:

"Do not use pay followed directly by a noun referring to the thing you are buying. Use pay (an amount of money) for something

Then under that entry there is an example sentence which I think contradicts the above statement:

You pay tax at the basic rate.”

Here “tax” is the object of “pay” but it is directly following the verb, which contradicts the statement. Am I right? If no, why?

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    In this sentence the word "tax" refers to the money paid as tax. One is not buying the tax, one is handing it over.
    – David42
    Aug 26, 2020 at 15:50
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    "You pay tax for the benefit of society. If you are buying anything when you pay tax, it's basic public services provided by the government. You are not buying a tax. Aug 26, 2020 at 16:06
  • There's nothing being bought. You don't pay tax to buy things, at least not directly. You pay it for the services etc.rendered by the government or whatever. Btw, the direct object is "tax at the basic rate".
    – BillJ
    Aug 26, 2020 at 17:42
  • @BillJ In places that have them, you pay a sales or VAT tax when you buy something. So, I don’t think it’s correct to say you don’t pay tax to buy things, but the tax is neither the payee nor the thing purchased. I think it’s better to explain “paying tax” as an idiom or set phrase.
    – CodeGnome
    Aug 27, 2020 at 3:31
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    @BillJ While I can imagine it being part of the NP, especially in different sentences, I would almost always understand "pay tax at the basic rate" with "at the basic rate" as an adverbial phrase, like in CG's answer. But I don't live in a place with a "basic rate" so that might skew things.
    – Dan Getz
    Aug 27, 2020 at 17:27

5 Answers 5


The construction you’re using is idiomatic, although “basic” isn’t a word I’d expect to hear in that context in American English. However, the phrase elides some words that are implied by the statement. When one says “You pay tax at the basic rate,” what’s really meant is something like:

You pay [a/the] tax [on something] at the standard/required rate [to the cashier or taxing authority].

In this case, the payee is the cashier or taxing authority, not the thing being purchased. I think the advice could be clearer, as it’s true that “tax” is neither the payee nor the object you’re buying, but “pay tax” or “pay a/the toll” are certainly phrases an American English speaker like myself would say in the right context.

In other words, you pay tax on/for something, or to someone. In comparison, phrases like “I pay clothes” or “I pay lunch” would sound very odd to a native speaker.

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    In the UK, income tax is in several bands, depending on your salary. 'Basic rate [income] tax' is the lowest level, generally starting at £12,500pa
    – CSM
    Aug 27, 2020 at 8:31

No, because you are not buying the tax. You pay the price of what you are buying, you pay the cost of what you are buying, you pay the tax on what you are buying. But you do not pay what you are buying. Their advice is consistent. Note their example "pay (an amount of money)"—you can pay nouns, such as "an amount of money", when they are not what you are buying.

Of course this is a little odd, as "what you are buying" is the reason for a payment, and the tax is also a reason for a payment. But taxes, fines, settlements, etc. can be direct objects of "pay" in the same way money, cash, etc. can, while an object you're purchasing can't; it's just how this verb works in English.

  • Pay does not work like give. For example, You pay tax to the government, but not You pay government the tax. Note that in You pay government tax the noun government is being used attributively so it's really an adjective, not a noun.
    – LawrenceC
    Aug 26, 2020 at 18:25
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    @LawrenceC But you can certainly say “You pay the government a tax [on your income].” The use of determiners such as definite or indefinite articles makes the construction sound reasonable to my ear.
    – CodeGnome
    Aug 27, 2020 at 3:39
  • @LawrenceC You do not pay the tax government, either. And you do not give your paperwork government.
    – user253751
    Aug 27, 2020 at 17:30

In the example "pay tax", the word "tax" is the functional equivalent of the amount that you pay in a transaction. It is the valuable that was paid for something.

I paid $10 for the ticket.
In that example, the ticket is what you are buying.

A: I paid my tax today.
B: How much was your tax?
A: It was $1000. I paid $1000.

In that example, the tax is not what you are buying. What you are buying is the government service paid for by the tax.

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    Well, you don't really buy things with tax. Tax pays for things, but you don't buy them.
    – user253751
    Aug 27, 2020 at 17:30

Comment converted into an answer

The "tax" example is irrelevant, since you don't buy tax, and the dictionary is only dealing with how to use the word pay in respect of a purchase (you pay for things you are buying, but you transitively pay tax / fines / attention / a visit with no preposition)

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    Answers in comments should be discouraged. And FF's comment is an answer, which is currently attracting upvotes. Well if anyone thinks that this is a good answer they can upvote it here (because it is a community-wiki posts no one earns rep) but if users feel it is either inaccurate or incorrect, they can also cast their downvote.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 27, 2020 at 10:09

When pay is used with a direct object, the direct object is the payment itself. As the book says, it is not the thing you are buying. However, tax is not a thing you are buying - tax is a payment, and we can use it as the direct object.

You can: (these things are payments)

  • pay tax
  • pay interest
  • pay a shipping fee
  • pay an overdue book fine

You cannot: (these things are things that you buy)

  • pay a bag of chips
  • pay a new car

However, you can:

  • pay for a bag of chips
  • pay for a new car

And you can even:

  • pay a down payment for a new car

When an object is the payment, then you can use it this way:

  • I got my friend to fix my computer, but I had to pay him a 6-pack of beer.
  • I paid 500 euros to fix my car.

Notice that the beer is not being bought. The beer is the payment for fixing the computer.

If you exchanged currencies, you could even have two types of money in the same sentence, and it is not ambiguous:

  • I paid 100 dollars for 85 euros. (I gave the bank dollars, and they gave me euros)
  • I paid 85 euros for 100 dollars. (I gave the bank euros, and they gave me dollars)
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    This sounds better than referring to the "tax" as just an amount of money as some other answers do. The direct object is the payment itself, which may be colloquially shortened to the object of the payment or the amount/nature of the payment, depending on which is more useful to specify. To "pay the mortgage" is to "pay [one monthly payment on] the mortgage". To "pay 50 bucks" is to "pay [a payment of] 50 dollars". Aug 28, 2020 at 19:07

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