Author Topic: Why an object needn’t follow the verb “told”  (Read 6962 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4676
  • Karma: +210/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
Why an object needn’t follow the verb “told”
« on: April 30, 2018, 09:41:04 PM »
An English-language speech specialist of a Makati City-based language institute sent me a note many years ago doubting the grammatical correctness of this sentence construction of mine: “That reminds me of an anecdote told to me by one of my staff.”

She wrote: “Isn’t it that when using the word ‘tell,’ it must be followed by a direct personal object? I went to several English grammar websites to make sure they all said the same thing, and they did. So your sentence should be: ‘That reminds me of an anecdote one of my staff told me.’ I could be wrong, though.”


In reply, I assured her that like the more common expression “a story told to me by . . .”, the form “an anecdote told to me by . . .” is not only grammatically and structurally correct but also widely accepted usage.

As proof, I called her attention to the standard attribution given for articles or stories of someone written by another person. That standard attribution goes as follows: “(title of article) by (author) as told to (writer),” as in “‘My Life as a Recluse’ by Juan de la Cruz as told to Susan Reyes.”

This usage clearly shows that the verb “tell” need not be followed by a direct object. Indeed, in the form “an anecdote told to me by…”, “told” is actually an intransitive verb in the passive past tense form acting on the object of the preposition “to,” and that object is, of course, the pronoun “me.”

As we are taught early in English grammar, intransitive verbs can’t have a direct object or act on a direct object at all, and that generally, it’s only to an object of the preposition that intransitive verbs can “transmit” its action.

The object of the preposition is, of course, the noun or pronoun that follows a preposition and answers the question “what?” or “whom?” that particular preposition relates to. In the verb phrase “escape into the wilderness,” for instance, “wilderness” is the object of the preposition “into,” which then relates the verb’s action to that object.

In particular, the rule that the English specialist invoked in this case—that the verb “tell” must be followed by a direct object—actually applies only to “tell” when it is used as a transitive verb, in which case “tell” absolutely requires a direct object to receive its action. This is the case in her proposed version of the sentence in question: “That reminds me of an anecdote one of my staff told me.” Being transitive, the verb “told” here needs the direct object “me” to receive the action; without a direct object, the sentence just won’t work.

To prove this, see what happens to the sentence when we drop the direct object “me”: “That reminds me of an anecdote one of my staff told.” The sentence has become nonsensical.

One other thought about her reconstruction of my sentence: “That reminds me of an anecdote one of my staff told me.” It’s actually an elliptical (shortened but acceptable) form of this construction: “That reminds me of an anecdote that one of my staff told me.” Formally, the sentence needs the relative pronoun “that” to be grammatically and structurally correct. For brevity and ease of articulation, however, “that” is often dropped from this sentence in informal usage.

For this reason, I warned the inquiring English specialist that her version is actually more vulnerable to being grammatically challenged than my original version. I assured her, though, that there’s nothing wrong with her version and that I’m actually as comfortable with it as with mine.

Still, I suggested that she had better be well-prepared when some hidebound classical grammar teacher pounces on her version as grammatically flawed for its “sin” of forgetting to put he relative pronoun “that.” This is because her defense surely would require a long, difficult, and often abstruse explanation of the grammar of elliptical sentences—something that might just happen to be beyond the grammatical depth of that classical grammar teacher.  

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the July 11, 2009 issue of The Manila Times, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: April 30, 2018, 11:04:49 PM by Joe Carillo »