Interpretation of Verb's Action on Object (With/without Preposition)

Why you can say ‘I smiled at the boy’, but not ‘I smiled the boy’

The subjectOpens in new window, verbOpens in new window, and objectOpens in new window are the central elements of structure in English. These core elements typically represent the main components of events (agent, action, theme).

By focusing on them (subject, verb, object), we can identify aspects of the grammar that indicate what happened, who or what caused it, and who or what was affected by it.

In English, there are other elements that have a more peripheral role in the description of events. These elements are typically found in preposition phrasesOpens in new window.

Within a structure that is formed by a prepositionOpens in new window plus a noun phrase, the entity represented by the noun phraseOpens in new window will have the form of an object (e.g. with him, near them), but that entity will not be directly affected by the action of the verb.

In many cases, the prepositional phrase will provide information about the circumstances of an event, such as when (at five o’clock, on Saturday), where (in the room, beside the window), or how (with a ruler, by bus).

However, in other cases, the use of a preposition will clearly mark that a participant was not directly affected by the action of the event. For example, there is a distinct contrast in meaning between the (i) and (ii) sentences presented closely below:

  • (i)  She kicked the dog.
  • (ii)  She kicked at the dog.
  • (i)  I shot the sheriff.
  • (ii)  I shot at the sheriff.
  • (i)  We looked the report.
  • (ii)  We looked at the report.
  • (i)  He smiled the boy.
  • (ii)  He smiled at the boy.

If it is grammatical to both kick something and kick at something, why can’t we *look something as well as look at something?

The answer may be found by thinking about the difference in meaning between kick and kick at. When you kick something, there is a direct impact of the verb action on the affected object (ouch!). When you kick at something, there is the same physical action (kick), but there is no impact on the object (missed!).

We normally interpret kick at or shoot at as meaning that the object didn’t get hit. The preposition at, in these examples, indicates that the object is not directly affected by the action of the verb.

In English, the actions represented by look, or smile, are clearly not considered to have any direct physical impact on the object. That is, you can look at something, because the something is not directly affected, but you can’t *look something, because it would imply that there was a direct impact of your look on the object.

Generally speaking, objects of prepositionsOpens in new window are interpreted as not being directly affected by the verb action, as illustrated with other prepositions below:

  • (i)  Mark flew the plane.
  • (ii)  Mark flew in the plane.
  • (i)  Mika rode a horse.
  • (ii)  Mika rode on a horse.

In the above constructions, specifically in (i) examples, we interpret the subjects (Mark, Mika) as having much more control over the objects (plane, horse).

These observations on the meaning of objects with and without prepositions are summarized further in the table below:

Objects after kick and kick at
Structure One:Subject + verb (= physical action) + object
Meaning:Object is directly affected by action of verb
Examples:
  • The man kicked the box.
  • *He looked the money.
Structure Two:Subject + verb (= physical action) + preposition + object
Meaning: Object of preposition is not directly affected by action of verb
Examples:
  • The man kicked at the box.
  • He looked at the money.

You should note, however, that the interpretations presented throughout this discussion, are not being offered as the only or the complete analysis of the possible meanings of the forms under investigation.

It is a common experience in the study of grammatical meaning that, as we find a way to explain one aspect of the relationship between form and meaning, we often discover other aspects that require further investigation.