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I have been thinking about this for a while. It seems to me that, sometimes, the subject plays a dative role in that it is the recipient of something. Take the following active sentence.

He gave me a gift.

If it is made passive, it normally changes as follows.

A gift was given to me (by him).

In which case a gift is clearly nominative and to me clearly dative. However, I often see the following passive construction used instead.

I was given a gift (by him).

In which case I appears to be a sort of nominative-dative, yet I can't quite explain a gift or what it does in the sentence; it is certainly not accusative. Semantically, I understand the sentence, but I cannot make syntactic sense of it.

After a quick search on Google Ngram, it seems that gift was given me is the oldest possible construction, which makes sense, followed by gift was given to me, which also makes sense. The first instance of I was given a gift appears to be in 1920, from which point it has risen steadily. So it seems quite obvious that it is a new usage.

Is this a 'correct' usage, so to speak? How did it come about? Most interestingly to me, how is it explained grammatically? Can it be adequately explained with traditional grammatical terms? or does it require an altogether new analysis?

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You might want to look in this grammar by Van Valin. In 'I was given a gift', the word 'I' is in the nominative as subject, but the referent remains the recipient just as in 'He gave me a gift' and 'He gave a gift to me'. You're confusing case with thematic relation . –  Edwin Ashworth May 11 '14 at 16:48
You have a lot of misconceptions here, e.g. "The first instance of I was given a gift appears to be in 1920, from which point it has risen steadily. So it seems quite obvious that it is a new usage." -- A decent grammar book ought to explain the topic of passives. Maybe even a wikipedia page on passives might be helpful. –  F.E. May 11 '14 at 17:11
The form "I was given a" seems to have started gaining currency at the beginning of the 19th century … much later than I would have expected. See Ngram. Did people not use indirect objects as subjects of passive before then? This seems to be a big change in English grammar; somebody must have studied it. –  Peter Shor May 11 '14 at 17:39
I note that He gave my sister a kiss for her gift. But me he sent only a dirty look puts the indirect object (you might say the dative piece, I suppose) up front in the sentence, but still doesn’t change the subject. Sometimes you can get a logical subject in the oblique case, like with an infinitive phrase, so maybe you might get some mileage out of that route. Sounds a bit convoluted or archaic though saying that he had something her to give. –  tchrist May 11 '14 at 17:41

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

This is a fairly well-known phenomenon in English grammar;
the simplest explanation is that there are two syntactic processes interacting here.

  • One process (rule, construction) is the Passive,
    which exchanges the subject and the object of a transitive sentence,
    without changing meaning -- but adding or subtracting a prepositional phrase:
    The janitor painted the fence. ~ The fence was painted (by the janitor)

  • The other process (rule, construction) is the Dative Alternation,
    which exchanges the direct object and the indirect object of a bitransitive sentence,
    without changing meaning -- but adding or subtracting a prepositional phrase:
    The janitor sent the bill to us. ~ The janitor sent us the bill.

These processes are optional: one can occur, or the other, or both, or neither --
as long as their conditions are met. So there are variations:

  1. He gave a gift to me.
    (no Dative occurs)
    == Passive ==>
    A gift was given to me by him.
    == Agent Deletion ==>
    A gift was given to me.

  2. He gave a gift to me.
    == Dative ==>
    He gave me a gift.
    == Passive ==>
    I was given a gift by him.
    == Agent Deletion ==>
    I was given a gift.

Both are correct; they're just variations. The easiest way to look at it is that an indirect object can get promoted to direct object by Dative, and a direct object can get promoted to subject by Passive. If it's already been promoted once, it can still be promoted further.

The point (the communicational purpose) of the Passive is to downplay the agent subject and get some affected patient object up front for emphasis. Having both these variations allows any noun with a grammatical relation to the verb (Su, DO, IO) to get moved up front, where the action is. It gives the speaker more latitude, and obviously is adaptive, since it's universal in English (though those prepositions will vary somewhat, as usual).

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“The easiest way to look at it is that an indirect object can get promoted to direct object by Dative” — So you would say that in “He gave me a gift”, me and a gift are simply two direct objects? Or am I misreading you? –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 11 '14 at 17:32
But one of the questions the OP is asking seems to be: was this currently well-known phenomenon really a mid–19th century innovation, and how did it arise? Other Germanic languages don't have it. (And why didn't the prescriptionist grammarians write diatribes against it? :-) ) –  Peter Shor May 11 '14 at 17:53
Yes, but some other Germanic languages can have dative subjects, because they actually have a dative case. German passives of helfen, for instance, keep the dative case on the recipient NP, even when it's subject (with third-person verb agreement, of course). It's been around a long time, though the details of the syntax are probly less than 400 years old. Most English syntax has been innovated in the last few centuries, in response to the death of inflections. –  John Lawler May 11 '14 at 19:03
@JanusBahsJacquet: Re the categorization of me and a gift in He gave me a gift -- I would say that me is the new DO and a gift is oblique, like the agent phrase after Passive. The term for the state both of these are in is en chômage, French for 'unemployed'. We say that by him (in the Passive) and a gift (in the Dative) are chômeurs, French for 'unemployed persons'. These social metaphors are coherent with the other metaphors of Relational Grammar, like an IO being "promoted to DO, and a DO being "promoted" to Su. –  John Lawler May 13 '14 at 2:38

It is a specialty of English that a passive can be formed from a dative object.

1 They awarded him a prize. 2 He was awarded a prize.

Though "him" in 1 is a dative object it has the same form as an accusative and English can make passive sentences from such dative objects. This is not possible in other languages.

Sentence 2 would be in German: Ihm wurde ein Preis verliehen.

Similar passive constructions are possible from sentences of the type:

3 They expect us to check out of the hotel by 11 o'clock. 4 Passive: We are expected to check out of the hotel by 11 o'clock.

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For non-German speakers, in sentence 2, the grammar is roughly: "to him was awarded a prize". –  Peter Shor May 11 '14 at 17:48
"They suppose us to check out of the hotel by 11 o'clock" is completely non-standard. No native speaker of English would ever say it. –  Erik Kowal May 12 '14 at 5:48
@Erik Kowal But "We are supposed to check out of the hotel by 11 o'clock" is standard (Longman DCE). I only turned the sentence into active to show how such a passive can be understood. Somewhere such passives must come from. –  rogermue May 12 '14 at 6:03
@Erik Kowal I have private signs to indicate non-idiomatic word-for-word translations, but I did not want to explain such signs. –  rogermue May 12 '14 at 6:13
"Supposed to" is a passive construction without an actual active case. "We are accustomed to sleeping at night" is another passive construction without an active case. –  Peter Shor May 13 '14 at 2:54

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