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Noun Functions

Nouns have three main functions. They can function as subjects of sentences or clauses, predicate nominatives, or objects. As objects, nouns may be direct objects, indirect objects, or objects of prepositions.


Perhaps the simplest noun function to remember and understand is the subject. Remember that the subject is the person or thing that does the action denoted by the verb. Of course, the specifics of the subject’s particular relationship to the verb are slightly different depending on the type and voice of the verb, but the principle is the same regardless of the specific kind of verb. A reliable way to find the subject in a sentence or clause is to find the verb first and ask, “Who or what is doing this?”

Jordan is running three miles every day.

If we find the verb first here, which is is running, and ask “Who or what is running?”, the answer is Jordan.

Avery is the new manager.

Even with a linking verb like is, we can still ask, “Who or what is?” to find the subject. In this case we arrive at Avery.

Shirley was told to enjoy her weekend.

In this example, the verb was told is in the passive voice. In passive voice, the subject is not performing the action (telling); the subject is the one the action is being done to (being told). However, the same test still applies. Who or what was told? Shirley was told.

Eric and Joseph raced each other to the library.

Remember that sentences and clauses are not limited to only one subject. There may be two subjects or an entire list of subjects joined by commas and a conjunction. In the above sentence both Eric and Joseph perform the same action. If we find the verb, raced, and ask, “Who or what raced?”, we find that both Eric and Joseph correctly answer the question.

Predicate Nominatives

A predicate nominative, also called a predicate noun, is a noun that renames the subject via a linking verb. A predicate noun can only be connected to the subject through a linking verb. Since the predicate nominative renames the subject, the two should be more or less interchangeable terms, which makes the “equals test” a good way to verify a predicate nominative: subject = predicate nominative.

The new employee is a nervous wreck.

The linking verb here is is, the subject is employee, and the only noun following the linking verb is wreck. Does employee = wreck? Yes, wreck renames the subject employee.

Roger’s book was a big success and an instant classic.

As with subjects, it’s important to remember to check thoroughly for more than one noun that could be a predicate nominative. The linking verb here is was, and the subject is book. We can say both, “book = success” and, “book = classic.”

Direct Objects

A direct object is the direct recipient of a verb’s action. Sometimes direct objects are confused with predicate nominatives, since both are nouns and often show up in the same places. The best way to tell them apart is to remember their relationship to the subject and what types of verbs each one can accompany. A predicate nominative renames the subject and can only be found with a linking verb, while a direct object receives the action of the verb and must come after a transitive verb (a verb having an object, as opposed to an intransitive verb, one without an object). If nothing else, simply remember that linking verbs have predicate nominatives, and transitive verbs have direct objects. To find the direct object, find the verb first (and the subject, if you like) and ask, “Whom or what?”

The pitcher hurled the ball at ninety-seven miles per hour.

The verb here is hurled, and the subject is pitcher. Next let’s ask, “The pitcher hurled whom or what?” The pitcher hurled ball, which means ball is receiving the action of the verb hurled from the subject pitcher.

Theodore has broken his left arm, his right ankle, and his nose.

As with subjects and predicate nominatives, it’s important to check for more than one direct object. After finding the verb has broken and the subject Theodore, we can ask, “Theodore has broken what?” Arm, ankle, and nose all answer the question accurately for a total of three direct objects.

Indirect Objects

An indirect object is the noun that receives the direct object of a transitive verb. It is not the recipient of the action, but of the object. Since the indirect object receives the direct object, it is not possible to have an indirect object without a direct object. Indirect objects can be found by finding the verb and direct object first and asking, “To whom or what?” or “For whom or what?”

Samantha gave the interviewer a pristine copy of her resume.

In this sentence the verb is gave, and the subject is Samantha. Next, let’s find the direct object by asking, “Samantha gave what?” Samantha gave copy. Now we ask, “To whom did Samantha give the copy?” Samantha gave the copy to the interviewer. It is important to look carefully and think clearly when identifying indirect objects. Many grammar students make the hasty mistake of labeling the first noun they see after a verb as the direct object and ignoring the rest of the sentence. If we made that mistake in the sentence above and called the interviewer the direct object, that would mean Samantha was giving away a person!

Beth gave her dog and cat some fresh food and water.

As always, be sure to check for more than one noun for any given function. This time the verb is gave, and the subject is Beth. We ask what Beth gave to find the direct objects food and water. To whom or what did Beth give food and water? She gave it to her dog and her cat, giving us two indirect objects.

Objects of Prepositions

An object of a preposition follows a preposition, usually quite closely, to form a prepositional phrase. To find prepositional phrases, you must be very familiar with the list of prepositions. Once you’re able to spot a preposition, determining its object is usually pretty straightforward.

Andrea is going to her ballet class.

If you know your prepositions, to should be the obvious start of the prepositional phrase to her ballet class. The noun in this prepositional phrase is class, making it the object of the preposition to.

Anthony went with Erica, Jason, and Liz last weekend.

And of course, prepositions can have more than one object. This time with starts the prepositional phrase with Erica, Jason, and Liz.