Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Playing around in my head with the different positions that a subject, verb, direct object, and indirect object can be positioned in one sentence, I ended up with 16 sentences using only the simple past tense.

The sentences which are preceded by a question mark indicate my uncertainty about their grammaticality.

  1. I gave Peter a book
  2. Peter I gave a book.
  3. I gave to Peter a book.
  4. I gave a book to Peter.
  5. To Peter I gave a book
  6. ? To Peter I gave a book to.
  7. Peter I gave a book to.
  8. To Peter a book I gave.
  9. A book to Peter I gave

    Passive voice
  10. To Peter a book was given (by me).
  11. ? To Peter a book was given to.
  12. A book was given (by me) to Peter.
  13. To Peter was given a book.
  14. ? Peter was given a book to
  15. Peter was given a book (by me).
  16. A book to Peter was given (by me)*

    *suggested by @Merk

  • Are there 16 different sentence patterns? Or is the passive voice a separate entity not to be included? In which case are there 9 sentence patterns in the English language?
  • Which sentences or sequence of words are ungrammatical and why?
  • Do these patterns or structures have names?
share|improve this question
Also 'A book to Peter I gave.' and 'A book to Peter was given (by me).' are acceptable. Even 'A book I gave to Peter' would be acceptable -- but it would only really be acceptable in response to the question "What did you give Peter?" and it would be pretty unnatural outside of poetry, as would some of these other examples. –  Merk Sep 29 '13 at 8:41
3 is ok, but only just -- opportunities to use it are limited. Some are very Yodaspeak! –  Andrew Leach Sep 29 '13 at 8:45
10 sounds passable. I can imagine some hoary lawyer and an accountant discussing some the Duke of Whatever's testamentary disposition: —I think we are almost finished. And, yesss, the last one. Uhm... the butler. Peter. —To Peter, a book was given. —Ah, good-good. Very good. –  Talia Ford Sep 29 '13 at 9:28
Grammaticality and idiomaticity are not necessarily the same thing. Some orderings may look fine when compared with other examples, but may not normally be encountered. And some fragments (eg 'Gave Peter a book. / Gave a book to Peter.) may be more acceptable in some contexts than some apparently well-constructed sentences. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 29 '13 at 12:30
“For unto Peter a book is given…” ;-) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 2 at 0:15

1 Answer 1

I've made some basic observations above, but here are some others...

Have I correctly identified 14 different sentence patterns? Or is the passive voice a separate entity not to be included? In which case there are 8 sentence patterns.

Well, your original sentences can be made into questions...I gave a book to Peter? To Peter I gave a book? etc.

Also, there are two form of the passive: static and dynamic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_voice#Dynamic_and_static_passive), so each of your passive sentences can be modified by inserting the word 'being' before given. The difference in sense is one of greater 'activity', a sense of something being pictured as happening or in progress.

Which sentence or sequence of words are incorrect and why?

3, 6, 11, 14 seem wrong. I cannot imagine a native English speaker using #3 except by mistake, or perhaps in poetry in order to meet the metrical demands of the line. With the verb 'give' you can only do #1. #3 is the sort of thing I can picture myself hearing foreign language learners saying. You cannot invert the direct object and indirect object after the subject without dropping 'to.' This is the same with the verbs offer or send. Some verbs, like report, can't even do the inversion in the first place.

Do these patterns have names? And please share any interesting or curious grammar facts which I may have overlooked in my question.

The examples in 1 through 9 that do not begin with the subject (i.e., I) are called 'inversions.' Inversion is a technique for changing the focus of the sentence. Focus, as a grammatical phenomenon, was largely ignored by traditional linguistics, but has become of great interest to today's linguists (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focus_(linguistics))

Besides changing the focus of the sentence, these inversions also serve poetic purposes. In florid and formal writing, they provide variety, and they provide an additional way to meet the demands of the meter.

Note that sometimes inversion is grammatically required. For example, the place of "Had" cannot be changed in "Had I given Peter the book, he would have known what to do." -- unless the whole sentence is restructured: "If I had given Peter the book, he would have know what to do."

Finally, the remaining examples in the passive have their own 'feeling' to them. Although the passive is much more common in English than in many other languages, the effect of using the passive is to diminish attention to the agent (the person/thing doing the action) in favor of the person/thing being acted upon (the patient, in Latin). Much has been said about this. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voice#Style_advice)

share|improve this answer
I made a mistake...passive is a voice, not a mood...so I am deleting some of the above. There is only active and passive voice in English.--though you can do two kinds of passive... –  Merk Sep 29 '13 at 9:43
The questions are dictated by intonation, by the rise of pitch at the end of a sentence, the actual word order is unchanged. But should I include the different question forms? And what about the negative forms? I don't think I will; the 12, 14 or 16 patterns (?) are plenty for the time being. –  Mari-Lou A Sep 29 '13 at 10:11

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.