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This question was just posed to me and I couldn't give a clear answer beyond that the second just feels wrong and one would generally use a direct or indirect quotation, as in "he came and said to me that he can't come." However, I'm led to believe that it's just a matter of usage, as it feels OK to say "He came and said to me something I'll never forget," or something along those lines.

Is this incorrect or just a matter of usage?

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I'm not sure, but I think all verbs that connect with two nouns, one with a preposition and one without naturally take the one without first, just to avoid sticking two nouns together. "took X from Y", "broke X away from Y", "combined X with Y" etc. This may be reversed if you want to emphasize the subject not accompanied by the preposition: "Attach to X Y (but not Z!)" –  SF. Nov 5 '12 at 0:58

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Say is a bitransitive verb, which means it takes two object phrases.

One is the person addressed (the Indirect Object), and the other is what was said (the Direct Object).

Most bitransitive verbs govern the Dative Alternation. This means that the two objects can appear in two different orders, ad lib, without any meaning difference. In one variant, the Indirect Object appears with a preposition to; in the other the order is reversed and there is no preposition.

  • Subject - Verb - Direct Object - to Indirect Object
    • He gave the book to me. ~ They threw the ball to her. ~ They told something to her.

but these are not grammatical:

  • *He gave the book me. ~ *They threw the ball her. ~ *They told something her.

or

  • Subject - Verb - Indirect Object - Direct Object
    • He gave me the book. ~ They threw her the ball. ~ They told her something.

but these are not grammatical:

  • *He said to me something. ~ *He gave to me the book. ~ *They told to her something.

However, say does not govern the Dative Alternation (although tell does -- that's one of the differences between them), and therefore the first alternant is the only way that both objects can appear with say. Thus it's ungrammatical to say

  • *He said me something.
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Complicated grammar. I'm not familiar with Dative Alternation, but now at least I know that it exists. Thank you for the clear and simple explanation. –  user21497 Nov 5 '12 at 2:32
    
It may be "lower register", but I'm not averse to saying things like "Give it me!" sometimes. It doesn't really sound "ungrammatical" to me - just slightly quirky/informal. –  FumbleFingers Nov 5 '12 at 2:39
    
From my reading of early British fiction, I think that was (and maybe still is) an idiomatic structure for BrE. The only reason I would change it to give it to me is to make it AmE for idiomatic consistency in the formal academic writing I edit. If it were dialog, I wouldn't change it. It's perfectly clear English. And it doesn't give me the creepy feeling I get with gave it to John and I. Because no AmE speaker would normally say "Give it me!", I can't judge the register: it doesn't have one in AmE. As John Lawler's answer implies, it's not grammatical for AmE. –  user21497 Nov 5 '12 at 3:11
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There really is no good answer to why some structures survived and others didn't. It's much like any other evolutionary distinction -- why so few marsupials in N. America? There are occasionally answers, but they require some real research. –  John Lawler Nov 9 '12 at 1:20
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@JohnLawler, ok, so asking "why" might be an ambitious question, as I'm well aware that not many reasons for language change are known. But I still think there are reasons, however complex they are. And learning how the language change takes its course should at least be a step in the right direction. –  dainichi Nov 9 '12 at 1:52

English is a word-order language. When the verb (say) is transitive (takes a direct object [DO]: "something" in this sentence) and the indirect object [IO] is in a prepositional phrase ("to me" in this sentence), the grammatically correct word order is:

said something to me.

It's not standard English to say He said me something, but it is standard English to say He told me something. This suggests either that the verb in your sentence is actually a phrasal verb, (say to, but my Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs doesn't include it, nor does any Web page on phrasal verbs) or that say doesn't have the same usage rules as tell.

The verb give is like tell in that respect: Both

He gave something to me ~ He told something to me

and

He gave me something ~ He told me something

are grammatically correct. The pattern is S+V+DO+to+IO or S+V+IO+DO.

Once you add a complement to something, the relative clause that I'll never forget, the usage rule changes and "said to me something (that) I'll never forget" is grammatical and acceptable because of the desirability of placing the (reduced, i.e., minus the relative pronoun that) relative clause immediately after the noun phrase it modifies.

The sentence "He came and said to me something I'll never forget" seems to me a bit of a style problem. I'd change said to me to told me or just to said without the to me, unless context demanded said to me.

"He came and told me something I'll never forget"
"He came and said something I'll never forget"

Ultimately, with the relative clause, it's a style and usage question. Without the relative clause, it's a grammar question (deleting the preposition to is necessary).

I'd also probably insert over between came and and.

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