What is a COD???

Listen and read along at the same time!
The following tries to shed some light on key elements of French grammar. The aim is to mull over some concepts a little, so to tame them, and hopefully better grasp how a French sentences work.

Part 1

If you took up a French class, chances are you will sooner or later encounter the COD.


No, not this type.

The other one, the bothersome one, generally found in grammar books and exercises, or in sentences supposed to help you understand how to conjugate a verb a certain way or properly align pronouns.

In other words: le complément d’objet direct (also called the complément direct: CD ).

If you look it up, you will find many definitions stating what the COD does in a sentence, or how to identify it, but very little on what it is… and the reason is because nobody seems to agree on how to define it in simple words.

To understand the COD, you first have to know about the SUJET.

In any given active sentence, the sujet (subject) is the “doer” of the action.

Pierre frappe la balle.
Pierre hits the ball.

Tu me le rendras plus tard.
You’ll give it back to me later.

By “doer”, I mean the entity attached to the verb, dictating its conjugation. For example, in the following sentence:

La balle est frappée par Pierre.
The ball is hit by Pierre.

The SUJET is “La balle“, even though Pierre’s still the “doer” of the action. That’s because the above sentence is not active, it’s passive. When you can put “par quelqu’un/quelque chose” (“by somebody/something”) in a sentence, it’s passive. In passive sentences, the SUJET and COD are inverted. The SUJET, though, is always the entity dictating the verb’s conjugation.

Identify the SUJET:

Les oies sauvages sont revenues de voyage.
Wild geese returned from their journey.

Les oies sauvages sont revenues de voyage.

Pourquoi les oiseaux peuvent-ils voler?
How come birds can fly?

Pourquoi les (oiseaux) peuvent-ils voler?

Les jours d’été sont plus longs.
Summer days are longer.

Les jours d’été sont plus longs.

La souris est poursuivie par le chat.
The mouse is chased by the cat.

La souris est poursuivie par le chat.

OK, now that we agree on what the SUJET is, we can explain what is a COD. The usual accepted definition is that if the SUJET is the doer of the action, the complément d’objet direct is the entity which receives the action, or upon which the action is done.  Sometimes, this statement is quite obvious:

Pierre frappe la balle.
Pierre hits the ball.

Pierre (SUJET) does the action, he hits. And he does the action onto la balle: and indeed, “la balle” is the COD.

Le chat mange la souris.
The cat eats the mouse. (C’est la vie!)

The action here is “mange” (eats). It’s done by Le chat (SUJET) onto poor la souris (COD).

But in other instances, it’s not that clear that the COD is the entity actually receiving the action. For instance, the following sentence:

Tu me le rendras plus tard.
You’ll give it back to me later.

While it is unquestionable that the doer (SUJET) is “Tu“, the receiver per say logically is me, written here as “me” (to me), since I will be the one receiving whatever it is you’ll be giving back later: “le” (it). Yet, the COD is not “me“, but “le“.

So the definition “receiver of the action” doesn’t apply to all cases. Therefore, it’s not a solid description for a COD. The statement “upon which the action is done” offers a slightly more precise description, but not always:

Le ministre estime qu’il a pris de bonne décisions.  
The secretary finds that he made right decisions.

Le ministre (SUJET) finds that he made de bonnes décisions (COD): however the action here is done upon something totally different, his job, our well-being, the well-being of the State… not the decisions themselves. Decisions he made were the means and not the end.  Still, in the French grammar world, it doesn’t work that way: “de bonne décisions” ends up being the COD.

How confusing is that, and how does one know what is the COD?

Part 2

Grammar books have resorted to explain this entity through its behavior and its place in the sentence rather than as a thing on its own. The COD is inseparable from the verb. As such, it completes it. And it completes it directly, i.e. without any preposition – à, de, pour etc. – between it and the verb. So now we know why it’s called complément and direct. What does the word “objet” has to do with all this? Beats me. It refers to the sentence’s object(ive): the action. (This is why the term complément direct is now used more and more).

So the real question you need to ask yourself is not what is a COD, but, rather, How do I recognize the COD in the sentence?

And grammar books will tell you: After the verb, you ask the question “Qui?” (Who?) or “Quoi?” (What?).

Le pêcheur attrape le poisson.
The fisherman catches the fish.

… attrape QUOI?  Le poisson.
… catches WHAT? Le poisson. 

Le poisson = COD.

Careful, though, a COD cannot be an adjective:

C’est vert.
It’s green.

No COD here.

The COD is either a noun, a group revolving around the noun, or a pronoun.

Try it. Find the COD:

Il a envoyé une lettre.
He sent a letter.

Il a envoyé une lettre.

On a mangé tout le gâteau.
We ate the whole cake.

On a mangé tout le gâteau.

Avez-vous fait réparer votre voiture?
Have you had your car repaired?

Avez-vous fait réparer votre voiture?

La photo paraît vieille.
The picture looks old.

La photo paraît vieille. (No COD)

Part 3

Not all verbs necessitate a COD. Some verbs contain all their meaning within themselves without the help of a complement, thank you very much. For example:

Le poisson barbote.
The fish splashes around.

Here, the fish “barbote” (splashes around):  In French, it doesn’t need to barbote something, it just does, and it’s enough.

So, is there the presence of a COD in this sentence? No. (Unless the fish in question happens to be a cod, but that’s another matter).

Nous avons beaucoup ri.
We laughed a lot.

One does not, in French, laugh “something”. One just, er, laughs. (In English, you can laugh it off, I guess, but it French you can’t. To laugh something off is translated as “minimiser” or “dédramatiser”). So again, no COD in this sentence.

Do the following sentences contain a COD?

On a fait la fête toute la nuit.
We partied all night.

On a fait la fête toute la nuit.

Il a nagé plusieurs heures.
He swam for many hours.

Il a nagé plusieurs heures. (No COD)

Avez-vous compris malgré tout?
Have you gotten it all the same?

Avez-vous compris malgré tout? (No COD)

Me donnerais-tu un coup de main?
Could you help me?

Me donnerais-tu un coup de main?

Ils ont déterminé qu’elle était guérie.
They assessed that she was cured. 

Ils ont déterminé qu’elle était guérie. (No COD)

All in all, a COD is a noun, group of words revolving around a noun or a pronoun that completes some verbs in need of it. With those, if you were to remove their COD, your sentence would suddenly not make sense anymore. You find the COD by asking the question “Quoi?” or “Qui?” after the verb. The COD never starts with a little word like “de”, “à”, “pour”, “avec” etc. If it did, then it would be a COI (complément d’objet indirect), the matter for another lesson.

Hope this helps a little in defining what is a COD.


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