As my readers know, I have written and tweeted extensively about indirect objects in English grammar. Some of the biggest lies that many grammar books tell are about indirect objects. For example, many grammars call the prepositional phrase to me in a sentence like She gave the book to me an indirect object. While prepositional phrases can, although extremely rarely, function as indirect objects, a prepositional phrase like to me is an example of an adjunct adverbial, not an indirect object.
I have also been playing around with Chat GPT a lot lately for fun. For example, I have asked the AI to look at some of my posts to determine if the author is a person or AI. So far, all my posts have come back as being analyzed as written by a person. So, I am happy to report that I am not a robot! (As Loki asked in the first season of Loki, “Do a lot of people not know if they are robots?”) I also decided to see what kind of misinformation I could get Chat GPT to tell me. The first topic was English indirect objects.
To begin the discussion, I asked the question, “What do many grammar books get wrong about indirect objects in English?”
Almost immediately, ChatGPT confused indirect objects with adjunct adverbials: “The indirect object always comes before the direct object: This is not always true. While the indirect object often comes before the direct object, there are many cases where the order can be reversed or even omitted. For example, “He gave me the book” and “He gave the book to me” are both correct.”
Both the sentences He gave me the book and He gave the book to me are absolutely grammatically possible in English. But the me in the first sentence and the to me in the second sentence are different forms that perform different functions. The me in the first sentence is a pronoun that forms a noun phrase that functions as an indirect object. The me in the second sentence is a pronoun that forms a noun phrase that functions as the prepositional complement in the prepositional phrase to me that functions as an adjunct adverbial. Yes, both me and to me perform the same semantic function, answering “(To) whom did he give the book?” But the grammatical forms and grammatical functions are not the same.
After pointing out that to me in He gave the book to me is an adverbial, not an indirect object, ChatGPT confirmed my correction: “You are correct, “to me” in the sentence “He gave the book to me” is not an indirect object, but rather an adverbial of recipient or benefactive. An indirect object typically refers to a person or thing that receives the direct object indirectly and typically comes before the direct object.” So far, so good.
I then asked the AI to give me a revision of its previous explanation of things that grammar books get wrong about indirect objects, taking into account the correction that I provided. (I do not have a screenshot of my input of this request.)
In this revision, ChatGPT removed the incorrect information about the prepositional phrase to me in He gave the book to me being an indirect object (which it is not). However, the second point was still incorrect: “The indirect object always comes before the direct object: This is not always true. While the indirect object often comes before the direct object, the order can vary depending on the sentence structure and context.”
I prompted the AI to give me more information by stating that the indirect object must precede the direct object in most Englishes.
The AI continued to tell me that the order of direct objects and indirect objects can vary. I thus prompted a revision by stating that indirect object always precedes a direct object in English.
While some Englishes allow for constructions such as He gave it me in which the indirect object me follows the direct object it, the syntax in the overwhelming majority of Englishes is subject-verb-indirect object-direct object. For example, the two sentences She gave the child a dog and She gave a dog the child have completely different meanings in most Englishes. In the first sentence, the child is the indirect object. In the second sentence, a dog is the indirect object.
I thus wanted to see if ChatGPT could give me an example of an indirect object following a direct object. I know that the structure is extremely rare. A quick Google search does not yield much information on the possibility of S-V-DO-IO in English.
ChatGPT gave me the example The flowers I bought my mother smell lovely. The AI furthermore claimed that flowers is the direct object and my mother is the indirect object. While my mother is indeed an indirect object, the flowers is not a direct object in the sentence. Rather, the flowers is the subject of the sentence. The clause I bought my mother, which is an adjective clause introduced by the null relativizer, describes flowers. The null relativizer functions as the direct object of the adjective clause.
The direct object does precede the indirect object in the adjective clause. However, despite the claim by ChatGPT that this “word order is less common and can be considered non-standard,” for a relativizer functioning as a direct object to go before the indirect object in a relative clause is the only possible word order in English grammar. This syntax is not uncommon or “non-standard.”
ChatGPT apologized but then gave me an example of S-V-IO-DO syntax.
I thus tried a different tactic and asked the AI to give me an example of a sentence in which the indirect object precedes the direct object and then a sentence in which the indirect object follows the direct object.
ChatGPT gave me the examples I gave my friend a gift and I made my mother a cake. The AI analyzed the first sentence correctly as containing the indirect object my friend and the direct object a gift. However, the analysis of the second sentence was incorrect. The noun phrase my mother is also an indirect object, not a direct object; the noun phrase a cake is a direct object, not an indirect object.
When I pointed out the mistake and asked for another example of a main clause in which the indirect object follows the direct object, ChatGPT gave me the sentence I showed my friends the pictures. Again, my friends is an indirect object that precedes the direct object the pictures.
I then again asked ChatGPT to find me a rare example of an indirect object following a direct object in a main clause in English.
The example given was I gave a book to the teacher, my favorite. Again, while indirect objects and prepositional phrases functioning as adjunct adverbials can provide the same semantic information, the two functions are different. In this example, a book is a direct object, but the teacher is not an indirect object even with the appositive my favorite. The prepositional phrase to the teacher functions as an adjunct adverbial. I gave up for the night.
Today I again asked ChatGPT to tell me what many grammar books get wrong about indirect objects in English. I was immediately disappointed with the same misinformation that confuses indirect objects and adjunct adverbials.
After some back and forth, ChatGPT finally promised not to tell me that a form like to me in She gave the book to me is an indirect object. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation about indirect objects exists on the internet and in many other sources. ChatGPT uses the information learned from training data to generate a response, and I can almost guarantee that some of that information contained falsehoods about indirect objects. Thus, I am not hopeful that my attempts to teach the AI about indirect object will do anything more than annoy me.
For more information about indirect objects and adverbial adjuncts, see A Form-Function Description of the Grammar of the Modern English Language: Book 1 (Level 7) of A Form-Function English Grammar.
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