Mistakes with indirect objects are very noticeable and make even the most advanced English students sound less natural. To make fewer mistakes in English conversations, there are 3 things you must know:
The most common and natural way to use indirect objects ✅
When it makes sense to change it up (i.e., do something different) ✨
The #1 mistake that students make ❌
But first, what is an indirect object, and why is it so important?
Indirect objects receive the action of the verb
Let me give you some advice.
In this sentence, some advice is the thing we are giving. It's what is known as a direct object.
The person we are giving it to is you, the indirect object.
There are two places where we can put indirect objects in a sentence:
In between the verb and the direct object
After the direct object by adding to or for in front of it.
It is more common to put the indirect object before the direct object
Option #1 is more common and sounds more natural to native English speakers in most situations.
For example, you could say, "I'll give feedback to you," but this sounds clumsy. Saying "I'll give you feedback" sounds much better.
So when does it make sense to put the indirect object after the direct object?
Placing the indirect object after the direct object emphasizes it
There are three situations (plus an exception which we'll talk about in a bit) where it makes sense:
The first is when you want to emphasize the indirect object.
This is why "I'll give feedback to you" felt awkward. It emphasized you, which is unnecessary.
If you and I are having a conversation, of course you will give me feedback—no need to emphasize it.
An example where emphasizing the indirect object makes sense is something like this:
I bought a coat for you.
By putting you at the end, we emphasize that this is a favor that we did for someone. I bought this FOR you because I'm nice and I like you.
There's nothing wrong with saying, "I bought you a coat," but in this case, we're not drawing any extra attention to the favor, which is fine.
It just depends on what you want to focus on.
Optionally place long indirect objects after the direct object
The second situation where it makes sense to put the indirect object last is when the indirect object itself is really long. Like before, this is optional.
Here, "the CEO and her guests" is pretty long, and it flows a little better to put it after the direct object.
I offered a cup of coffee to the CEO and her guests.
Again, there's nothing wrong with saying, "I offered the CEO & her guests a cup of coffee." It's simply a matter of preference.
You must put the indirect object after "it" or "them"
The third situation where this option makes sense is if the direct object is a pronoun, specifically it or them.
In this case, you MUST put the indirect object after the direct object.
If we look at our sentence about feedback, we saw that it sounds more natural to use option 1 and put the indirect object between the verb and the direct object.
If we turn feedback into the pronoun it, then we have:
I'll give you it.
Which doesn't work at all.
Instead, you need to place the indirect object after it and say:
I'll give it to you.
Use "to" to introduce an indirect object when you are giving
How do you know if you should use to or for with an indirect object?
Typically we use to when we are giving someone something as in:
She sold it to him.
She is giving him whatever she sold.
Who did you sell it to?
(Notice how if we ask who the indirect object is, we use the preposition. You can't say, "Who did you sell it?")
Another example is:
I'll lend it to him.
which means I will give him something for a short time.
Use "for" to introduce indirect objects when you are doing a favor
On the other hand, we use for with verbs that imply we are doing something nice like a favor or something that someone else isn't capable of doing.
He cooked it for her.
She is just a kid and can't cook.
I made it for them.
I wanted to be nice.
Who did you make it for?
I want to know who the them was from the previous sentence.
Put the indirect object in front of the direct object most of the time
Okay, so we've seen that there are two main places to put the indirect object.
The MAJORITY of the time, try to use option 1. It sounds the most natural in most situations.
You can optionally use option 2 to add emphasis or if the indirect object is long. You must use it if the direct object is it or them.
You cannot add to or for in front of the indirect object when it is between the verb and direct object.
Saying "Let me give to you some advice" does not work at all.
There are 7 words that don't follow the rules
Alright, time for the big exception.
Even though putting the indirect object in between the verb and direct object is usually the most common and natural way, it does not work with explain, push, carry, donate, describe, take, or suggest.
Instead, these only work with option 2: placing the indirect object after the direct object using to or for.
The #1 problem is the verb explain
You cannot say, "Can you explain me what it means?". This is wrong every time.
Instead, you should either say,
Can you explain what it means to me?
If it's obvious who needs something explained, you can simply leave out the indirect object.
Can you explain what it means?
If you ask the question and you want the explanation, it's already understood that you want someone to explain it to you.
If you want us to explain it to someone else, then you should include it.
Can you explain what it means to her?
You can break the rules with explain if you use it with that or a question word
Oddly, if you follow explain with a that clause or a wh-question word, you CAN put the word to in front of the indirect object even if it comes before the direct object.
It is okay to say:
I explained to him that he was wrong
She explained to me how to do it.
And there you have it—the two ways to use an indirect object.
Improving your mastery of indirect objects is extremely important
This is a critical topic if you want to sound more natural. It's one of the more noticeable mistakes.
I highly recommend you spend some time reviewing this and looking for examples in books, articles, podcasts, or videos that you watch to add to your collection.