So all blogs I went to say that intransitive verbs do not take an indirect object. But consider this sentence:

  • She is speaking to him.

Isn't speaking in this case intransitive? And isn't him an indirect object?

  • 4
    Why is "him" an indirect object?
    – alphabet
    Jul 30, 2023 at 2:56
  • 1
    @alphabet because it is preceded by to, meaning it isn't taking the verb directly
    – Rommel Bagasina
    Jul 30, 2023 at 2:59
  • @alphabet - Some define indirect object more broadly, I recently discovered. However, IDK if that applies to this case…
    – HippoSawrUs
    Jul 30, 2023 at 3:24
  • 1
  • Indeed, when I was taught grammar, and did things like diagram sentences, an indirect object was diagrammed as if it were the object of a preposition, but where the preposition goes on the slanted line, an implied preposition (or just the letter "x" if the implied preposition isn't obvious) is written in parentheses. I was also taught that an imperative sentence should be written with "(you)" as the subject if it isn't explicit in the text. Jul 31, 2023 at 17:54

6 Answers 6


This sentence contains an indirect object and a direct object:

I gave my friend a book.

This sentence contains no indirect object, just a direct object and a prepositional phrase:

I gave a book to my friend.

This sentence, the one you cited, contains no object of any kind, but only a prepositional phrase:

He is speaking to him.

Some define "indirect object" more loosely, but I doubt that any would count "him" in "He is speaking to him" as an indirect object.

  • 3
    The Wikipedia article on prepositions has this: "...the recipient of a transfer – give it to him (sometimes marked by a dative or an indirect object)...*." So right or wrong, some do consider "him" to be an indirect object, at least with "give", so I don't see why not with "speak".
    – gotube
    Jul 30, 2023 at 21:35
  • What is an indirect object, if not "him"? Aug 1, 2023 at 23:27
  • 1
    +1 Anyone calling him an indirect object is confusing syntax for semantics.
    – DW256
    Aug 12, 2023 at 5:12

He is speaking to him

The verb speak licenses a complement in the from of a preposition phrase that contains an object. These sorts of objects are oblique objects of the verb because, though arguments of the verb, they are objects of the preposition first and related to the verb only indirectly through the preposition.


He is [addressing [him]]. [VP [O]]

He is [speaking [to [him]]]. [VP [PP [O]]]

Direct and indirect objects only come into play when there are two noun phrase elements directly licensed by the verb heading the verb phrase, the indirect object typically preceding the direct object.

He is [telling [him] [a story]]. [VP [IO] [DO]]

Otherwise we simply have an object.

He is [telling [him]]. [VP [O]]

He is [telling [a story]]. [VP [O]]

Note that direct object and indirect object are labels for functions in clause structure (syntax), not labels for meaning (semantics). Semantically, but not syntactically, the following are equivalent:

He gave a book to him.

He gave him a book.

  • 1
    ... But 'She threw him a look' cannot undergo this transformation (using the to-phrase); interestingly, 'She threw a look at him' does work. Though again, 'She threw a book at him' does not correspond to 'She threw him a book'. Jul 30, 2023 at 15:26

The OED considers speak to a phrasal verb.

speak v.
Phrasal verbs
PV.1. With prepositions, in more or less specialized uses.
to speak to ——
1. To address words or discourse to (a person); to talk to, converse with.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

Thus speak to is a transitive verb. That makes him in she is speaking to him the direct object.

Others call speak to a prepositional verb:

The prepositional verb is a common intransitive verb form in the English language. Prepositional verbs consist of a verb plus a prepositional phrase that functions as a verb phrase complement.
Source: Linguistics Girl)

Either way, your sentence does have an object (either a direct object or an object of the preposition) — one that can be promoted to the subject position to create a passive voice construction:

He is being spoken to [by her].


This seems like it's an argument over definitions.

Some folk use the term "intransitive verb" to mean "not taking any object", while others use the term to mean "not taking a direct object".

My early education in English put me among the latter, but given how much English grammar has changed in the last 40 or so years, I wouldn't be surprised to find that the uses of terminology have changed.

In particular, the preposition "to" has recently replaced other "standard" prepositions in conjunction particular verbs, which changes the perception of whether using other prepositions can or can't introduce an indirect object. (If I suggested that for or with or against or upon could introduce an indirect object, I'm sure many folk would object.)

Conversely, some verbs that previously took indirect objects can now be used without "to" (e.g. write to me; explain to me), which clearly affects how one counts "indirect objects" and therefore how some of us count "intransitive verbs".

Curiously the verb at the core of the question - speak - rarely takes a direct object; generally only a term affirming or doubting veracity, as in Speak truth to power!. However it is richly endowed with prepositions: as well as being able to speak to me, we can also speak before a committee, speak down to a subordinate, speak for the dead or absent, speak from the heart, speak in a foreign language (or in tongues), speak into a microphone (or someone's ear), speak of the old times, speak on the record, speak opposite a debating opponent, speak out on things that matter, speak sub voce, speak through a translator, speak up for the disenfranchised, speak upon a topic dear to ones heart, speak with forked tongue, or just speak with someone.


She sang a song.

  • "sang" here is a transitive verb with song as the direct object. (DO)

She sang to him.

  • "sang" here is an intransitive verb because a direct object is not required. "him" is the indirect object and is part of the prepositional phrase "to him".

She sang a song to him.

  • we're back to a transitive verb with a direct object.

Very few verbs must be used with a direct object. "enjoy, have, need, and own" are some examples.

Most verbs can be intransitively, often with the DO assumed within the context of the conversation.

She gave as much as she could.

Money? time? effort? only the conversation would indicate.


I think this is the sentence you are looking for:

Be bold, bloody, and resolute: laugh to scorn the power of man…

If “scorn” is used as a noun, “the power of man” must be the indirect object of the intransitive verb “laugh.” If not, you may laugh me to scorn.

If “the power of man” is a direct object, it would imply that it is created by laughter. This is an evocative thought that seems to be in line with Hamlet’s view on life, but the many personal correspondences I have held with Hamlet make me think that this was not his original intention. (This is a striking example why you should never use an appeal to authority if you can’t cite it.)

I also need to note that it’s fairly straightforward to see if a verb is used in a sentence transitively or intransitively, but much more difficult to determine if a verb is transitive or not. Generally, a verb is intransitive right up until it is not:

She laughs melodies.

Conversely, even the most transitive verbs can be used intransitively by recovering a verb from a gerund:

Crime does not pay.

  • The last, surely, is governed by the sense of the verb "pay". "The company will pay a dividend" employs an altogether different - and transitive - sense of the verb to "Growing vegetables at home doesn't pay". the first is an action the second is an expression about an economic fact. And the two senses are listed separately in the OED.
    – WS2
    Jul 30, 2023 at 22:08
  • @WS2: Hmm, you are right. How about when the direct object is so commonly paired with the transitive verb that it is implied and dropped? Dictionaries often have definitions like * [transitive] to give someone money that you owe them * [intransitive] to pay ones due I don't see this pattern in OED, so the sentence with intransitive verb but indirect object "I'm afraid it's time to pay the piper." may not be proper OED English, but it is equivalent to the proper "I'm afraid it's time to pay the piper his due." Jul 31, 2023 at 2:44
  • 1
    @StevenMorrell I think that you're getting confused with semantic roles (e.g., "patient" or "theme") and syntactic roles (e.g., "direct object" and "indirect object"). The distinction is important. Jul 31, 2023 at 19:38
  • I'm definitely confusing the two. I had never even heard of semantic roles until you sent the link. That's pretty cool! So syntactic-wise, is it just as simple as the direct object is the primary reference of the verb and the indirect object is any other reference (aka "Thing 1" and "Thing 2")? Aug 1, 2023 at 15:11

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