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Why are "answer me" and "answer the question" acceptable but not "answer me the question"? Is it similar to "explain me (something)"?

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Possible duplicate of: What's wrong with “I'll open you the door”? –  RegDwigнt Mar 13 '13 at 23:28
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3 Answers

Riddle me this, Batman.

Sometimes it actually is ok to “answer me a question”. Acceptability may vary. For example, this sounds fine to me:

If you can answer me this next question, you can go free.

Here are several examples from Google Books, all of which sound find to my ear:


Previous Answer

The simple answer is because we no longer talk that way. Here’s a rather famous quote that uses the very thing you have asked about:

“He who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three ere the other side he see.”

As you might detect, that is a valid but archaic formulation. (Another sign of deliberate archaism there is the present subjunctive following ere.)

The OED has several transitive senses of answer, but almost all are marked either archaic or indeed even obsolete, especially the bitransitive ones.

Here are a few such examples from the OED:

  • 1581 Charke in Confer. iv. (1584) F f b, - You haue so often chalenged vs to answere you an argument.
  • 1594 Shaks. Rich. III, iv. ii. 96 - Stanley looke to your Wife: if she conuey Letters to Richmond, you shall answer it.
  • 1625 Donne Serm. cl. Wks. VI. 61 - Whosoever is dead in that family by thy negligence, thou shall answer the King that subject.
  • 1731 Swift Corr. II. 649 - The maid will..sell more butter and cheese than will answer her wages.
  • 1793 Smeaton Edystone L. §125 - The Proprietors could not answer it to the public..if they kept me in waiting.
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+1 But the archaic formula is preserved–fossilized, you may say–in the still-current "Answer me that!" –  StoneyB Mar 14 '13 at 0:11
    
@StoneyB Yes, the imperative form preserves it, as I have just pointed out to John. –  tchrist Mar 14 '13 at 0:12
    
@StoneyB Actually, it appears that you can get away with it when modals are involved, too: check this out. Similarly here. –  tchrist Mar 14 '13 at 0:20
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The more complicated answer is a lot of people don't accept that answer can be ditransitive (i.e. - they don't think it can validly modify both me and the question in OP's example).

I'm not going to say they're wrong - I'm perfectly happy with I'll open you the door, for example, but fairly obviously most people aren't.

But I would say that in the case of [in?] question, it's worth noting there are apparently over half-a-million written instances in Google Books of...

Answer me this

...so if it is wrong, a lot of people either don't know that, or don't care. I think many verbs are "marginal" in this respect, and that answer is considered "ditransitive" by a significant minority.


For reasons that aren't fully clear to me, people are more prepared to "stretch" marginal verbs when the additional indirect object is me. So *"I answered Bill the question" sounds bad to people who don't mind "Answer me that!"

I think it's probably connected with the fact that forms like "Give me the money!" are acceptable to all because the indirect object (me) is a recipient. When you say "Answer me that!", what you really mean is "Give me an answer to that!". Semantically, answer serves as a "giving" verb, allowing it to be used ditransitively.

The specific indirect object me probably figures disproportionately high in the total number of utterances a person makes (we're always saying variants of "Give me this!" and "Give me that!"). My guess is that predisposes at least some of us to accept "Answer me that!" more easily than *"Answer Bill the question!"

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I’ve found quite a few others in Google Books, too, like “Answer me what difference it makes. . . .” It also seems to work if there is a modal like must or will before it: “You will answer me one last question before you leave here, young man.” This is almost always with “answer me”; instances of “answer him his question” are much rarer. –  tchrist Mar 14 '13 at 0:31
    
What, you think people would have a problem with “Open me one of those packages, please”? Odd. –  tchrist Mar 14 '13 at 0:39
    
@tchrist: It's not a matter of what I think. Check the link, count the votes for the top answers, then tell me other people don't have a problem with some of these usages. Anyway, unless I'm much mistaken, you yourself had a problem with "I'll cash you a cheque". Even if you personally don't, an awful lot of Americans do. –  FumbleFingers Mar 14 '13 at 0:43
    
I assure that my only problem with you cashing me a check is completely limited to its spelling. No really, cash me a check sounds fine. –  tchrist Mar 14 '13 at 0:44
    
@tchrist: The spelling of cheque/check was precisely what prompted me to use that one in my answer to the linked question. The two top answers (saying such forms are not valid) currently have 85 votes between them; mine (saying they are valid) has 4 votes. Like I say, I'm only reporting what other people think, since obviously I don't agree with them. –  FumbleFingers Mar 14 '13 at 0:48
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The simple answer is that, while answer is a transitive predicate, and therefore has a direct object (referring either to the question that was answered or the addressee of the answer -- but not both at the same time); nevertheless answer is not a bitransitive predicate, and therefore has no indirect object.

  • I told the number to Bill ~ I told Bill the number
  • I sent the book to Bill ~ I sent Bill the book.
    (bitransitive verbs, direct & indirect objects, and Dative Alternation)

  • I fixed the socket ~ *I fixed the socket to Bill ~ *I fixed Bill the socket

  • I answered the question ~ *I answered the question to Bill ~ *I answered Bill the question
    (transitive verbs w/ direct object, but no indirect object, therefore no Dative Alternation)
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Answer me one question, please: is there anything wrong with this sentence? :) –  tchrist Mar 14 '13 at 0:10
    
Fixed forms exist. Answer yourself your question. –  John Lawler Mar 14 '13 at 0:16
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