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I asked him if he could swim.

Downing, in her book 'English Grammar,' describes this kind of construction as:

subject + verb + NG(a Recipient) + Wh-complement clause.

(In Downing's terminology NG = nominal group, eqivalent to ‘noun phrase’)

However, my other syntax books have examples that have no such NG.

So I want to know by what name syntax books call him in the example.

  • Him is the direct object of ask. – kiamlaluno Apr 20 '13 at 13:41
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    @kiamlaluno I think not. In traditional grammar the DO is the clause (if he could swim); him is the Indirect Object. "I asked him [IO] a question [DO]." My guess is that OP's book characterizes if he could swim as a Wh-complement clause a) on the basis of its alternate form whether he could swim and b) to maintain consistency with clauses like what his name was or who he lived with or when he was coming. – StoneyB Apr 20 '13 at 15:46
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    Whoops... Yes, it is an indirect object. I was hoping the reply could be "The OP is not asking about direct or indirect object." :) – kiamlaluno Apr 20 '13 at 17:55
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    "Ask" can be monotransitive, as in "How did you know his name?" "I asked him". Or ditransitive - "I asked him his name". If we grant that him and his name are direct/indirect objects there, I don't see why what his name was shouldn't be just another "indirect object". Nor do I see why the same shouldn't apply to if he could swim. (But I don't see the point of this level of terminological dissection anyway, so what do I know? :) – FumbleFingers Apr 20 '13 at 20:43
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    @FumbleFingers I'm very happy having heard StoneyB's words. For that's the way of mine, and I've suspected it might be just a Korean style. And Dowing's way is very similar with FumbleFingers. Yet, she sees NG and wh-clause all as "valencies" (as is called 'arguments in other books). So for her the two are not IO, DO, but just two arguments of the verb - ask. She also says ask is monotransitive and ditransitive. – Listenever Apr 20 '13 at 23:58
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Traditional grammar would parse this sentence as:

[Subject I] [Verb asked] [Indirect Object him] [Direct Object if he could swim]

Observe, however, that Indirect Object is not equivalent to Recipient. Indirect Object and Direct Object are syntactical categories: the names for different roles in the sentence. Recipient is a semantic or thematic category: the name for a particular role in the action described.

The distinction is important because syntactical categories may change when the sentence is “transformed”, while semantic categories remain constant. For example, if your sentence is recast into the passive voice, HE (with necessary inflectional changes) becomes the Subject of the sentence:

[Subject He] [Verb was asked] [Direct Object if he could swim]

But the person designated by he is still the Recipient of the action.

It is perhaps worth noting that in an ordinary active sentence, the syntactic role of Indirect Object may also fill the semantic role which Functional Grammar names Beneficiary:

[Subject I] [Verb bought] [Indirect Object him] [Direct Object a necktie]

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