Grammarians Are Such a Hoot!

by Tina Blue
September 3, 2000

We grammarians don't deserve our image as dry, school-marmish bores. Actually, we're a hoot. I mean, we know so many grammar jokes--well, ok, we know four. But if you have any to share, please tell me. I run through my four jokes pretty quickly at a party, and then I have to go back and run through them all over again.

Now, stop me if you've heard this one:

~My mother made me a neurotic.
~Great! If I buy her the wool, will she make me one,


How about this one:

~Call me a cab.
~Ok, you're a cab.

Are you on the floor yet? Try to get yourself under control, or I won't be responsible.

~Make me a milkshake.
~ZAP! You're a milkshake.

Whooo! Let me catch my breath! OK--one more:

~Don't you know the Queen's English?
~Why, yes, I'd heard she was.

Pant, pant. Hee-hee-hee. Ok, ok, I hear you. You want to understand the way these jokes work--you want under the hood, so to speak.

Now, is this sneaky, or what? Mainly I wanted to tell you about object complements and indirect objects. That last joke is from a different grammatical category, but it is the only other grammar joke I know, so I hated to leave it out.


Do most of you remember diagramming sentences in English classes? Did you ever notice that some things just can't be forced into any of the slots available in a standard diagram? Well, it might not have been your fault if you couldn't get something in there (though probably it was). There are some things that man was not meant to know (like, for example, how to diagram an absolute phrase). But a lot of things do fit the diagram slots, if you have a clue as to what those things actually are.

One grammatical category that has puzzled generations of students is the object complement. For example, in the sentence "They elected him president," what is the direct object of the verb? Is it "him," or is it "president"?

Well, it is "him"--but then what do we do with "president"? In this sentence "president" is an object complement--a noun (or noun substitute) or an adjective (or adjective substitute) that follows the direct object of the verb and either renames it, identifies it, or describes it. Like the subject complement slot, the object complement slot can be filled only by a noun or adjective (or by a viable substitute for either).

The word "complement" in "subject complement" or "object complement" means "completer," and that is what the complement does. It completes the idea about the subject or object.

In the case of a subject complement, it comes after a linking verb and renames, identifies, or describes the subject:

~You seem tired. (subject complement [SC] = "tired" = adjective, describing subject "You")

~The situation is hopeless. (SC = "hopeless" = adjective, describing subject "situation")

     ~Running is good exercise. (SC = "exercise" = noun = identifies and completes idea about subject "running")

     In the case of the object complement, the noun or adjective comes directly after the direct object and does for it what the subject complement does for the subject.

~They elected him president. (object complement [OC] = "president" = noun= identifies direct object "him")

~This whole situation makes me furious. (OC = "furious" = adjective = describes direct object "me")

In the first three jokes, what happens is that the grammatical categories of indirect object, direct object, and object complement are confused. An indirect object is the person or thing that the direct object is done to or for.

~He wrote them a large check. (indirect object [IO] = "them" = whom the direct object [DO] "check" was written for)

~She sang her child a lullaby. (IO = "child" = whom the DO "lullaby" was sung to)

Now let's look at those jokes.

~My mother made me a neurotic.

In this sentence, "neurotic" is an object complement, identifying the direct object "me." But the joke is to deliberately misunderstand "me" as the indirect object, and then to take "neurotic" as the direct object, so that "My mother" makes a neurotic for "me."

In the second sentence, "me" is an indirect object ("Call for me a cab."), and "cab" is the direct object. But the joke treats "me" as the direct object, and "cab" as the object complement.

In the third sentence, "me" is once again the indirect object ("Make for me a milkshake."), and "milkshake" is the direct object, but the joke treats "me" as the direct object and "milkshake" as the object complement.

The last sentence, of course, plays on the fact that there is no difference between the possessive noun "Queen's" and the contraction "Queen's" for "Queen is," whether the words are spoken or written. If you're as old as I am, you'll probably remember that this joke was used in the Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night, but it was an old joke even then.

So now you know what an object complement is--and a few other bits of fairly useless grammatical information. If that's more grammatical terminology than you ever really wanted to know--well, the joke's on you. Heh, heh. Didn't I tell you we grammarians are irrepressible jokesters?

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