By Geraldine Woods

Action verbs express — surprise! — action. No action verb needs a complement to be grammatically legal. Indirect objects are one type of complement that follows action verbs and enhance the meaning of the subject-verb pair.

Imagine that you’re holding a baseball, ready to throw it to your friend. In your fantasy, you’re facing a Hall-of-Fame hitter. You go into your windup and pitch. The ball arcs gracefully against the clear blue sky — and crashes right through the kitchen window.

You broke the kitchen window!

Before you can retrieve your ball, your phone rings. It’s your mom, who has radar for situations like this. What’s going on? she asks. You mutter something containing the word broke. (There’s the verb.) Broke? Who broke something? she demands. You admit that you did. (There’s the subject.) What did you break? You hesitate. You consider a couple of possible answers: a bad habit, the world’s record for the hundred-meter dash. Finally you confess: the kitchen window. (There’s the complement.)

Here’s another way to think about the situation (and the sentence). Broke is an action verb because it tells you what happened. The action came from the subject (you) and went to an object (the window). As some grammarians phrase it, the window receives the action expressed by the verb broke. Conclusion? Window is a direct object because it receives the action directly from the verb.

Try another.

With the force of 1,000 hurricanes, you pitch the baseball.

Pitch is an action verb because it expresses what is happening in the sentence. The action goes from the subject (you, the pitcher) to the object (the baseball). In other words, baseball receives the action of pitching. Thus, baseball is the direct object of the verb pitch.

Here are a few examples of sentences with action verbs. The direct objects are italicized.

The defective X-ray machine took strange pictures of my toe. (took = verb, X-ray machine = subject)

George hissed the secret words to a fellow spy. (hissed = verb, George = subject)

My best crayons draw beautiful lines. (draw = verb, crayons = subject)

Leroy’s laser printer spurted toner all over his favorite shirt. (spurted = verb, printer = subject)

You may be able to recognize direct objects more easily if you think of them as part of a pattern in the sentence structure: subject (S) – action verb (AV) – direct object (DO). This S–AV–DO pattern is one of the most common in the English language; it may even be the most common. (I don’t know if anyone has actually counted all the sentences and figured it out!) At any rate, think of the parts of the sentence in threes, in the S–AV–DO pattern:

machine took pictures

George hissed words

crayons draw lines

printer spurted toner

Of course, just to make your life a little bit harder, a sentence can have more than one DO. Check out these examples:

Al autographed posters and books for his many admirers.

Roger will eat a dozen doughnuts and a few slabs of cheesecake for breakfast.

The new president of the Healthy Heart Society phoned Egbert and his brother.

George threw stained shirts and smelly socks across his bedroom.

Ella bought orange juice, tuna, aspirin, and a coffee table.

Some sentences have no direct object. Take a look at this example:

Throughout the endless afternoon and into the lonely night, Al sighed sadly.

No one or nothing receives the sighs, so the sentence has no direct object. Perhaps that’s why Al is lonely.

The grammar point: This sentence doesn’t have a direct object, though it is powered by a verb and expresses a complete thought.