"I gave him two dollars."

This tacitly means "to him". Are there exceptions to the rule that an indirect object in English always means "to" or "for"?

In English, "I stole him two dollars" does not mean "I stole two dollars from him", and one does not say "I withheld him that information" (either of those usages would be valid in German).

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    "I stole him two dollars" would mean "for him", I guess.
    – Mr Lister
    Jun 1, 2014 at 20:31
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    Indirect objects in English are much more restrictive than in many other languages that have them, being licensed essentially by the individual verb and/or idiom directly. In ‘look someone in the eye’ or ‘stand someone a drink’, for example, it does not correspond to any prepositional phrase—it can only be used as an indirect object. You cannot ‘look in the eye for/to someone’ or ‘stand a drink to/for someone’. I can’t currently think of any contexts where an indirect object could be transposed to a prepositional phrase with a preposition that isn’t either to or for, though. Jun 1, 2014 at 20:59
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    @Peter They’re indirect. For your test, try deleting whatever comes after the “somebody” argument. If the sentence holds together, it’s direct, but if not, it’s indirect. With “I hit him on the chin” > “I hit him”, the key sense remains unchanged. With “look somebody in the eye” > “look *somebody” just as with “look somebody over” > “look *somebody”, it no longer makes sense without a preposition inserted between the two words. Therefore the body involved could never have served as the direct object.
    – tchrist
    Jun 1, 2014 at 21:49
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    Um... what? look over and look in the eye are idiomatic (or phrasal) verbs, they mean something different from look by itself (among other things, they are transitive and take direct objects, while look is not), so of course if you drop the adverb the sentence no longer makes sense. somebody is still the direct object. It might make sense to stand a drink for someone, on the other hand, though it would sound odd.
    – Wlerin
    Jun 2, 2014 at 1:24
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    @Wlerin Look over is obviously a phrasal verb. Look/stare/gawk/etc. [someone] in the [body part] is most definitely not a phrasal verb. It is an idiomatic template that can be used quite productively and just happens to include an indirect object. Jun 2, 2014 at 9:00

1 Answer 1



There are verbs that take two objects that won’t let you blindly transform this:

  • verb   indirect-object   direct-object

into this

  • verb   direct-object   to/for   indirect-object

and be left with legal or meaningful sentences. Some of these are:

  • Pardon me my reach.
  • I forgave her the entire incident.
  • I envied him his easy smile.
  • I begrudged him his easy smile.
  • The falling dish pail struck him a good solid knock.
  • I excused him the mud on his shoes.
  • I forbade him further admittance.
  • You cannot permit them full run of the place.
  • I denied him his request.

If you look back a few hundred years, you’ll find many more instances of this sort of thing which are now obsolete because they don’t sound right to us anymore. The Old English dative was not so cut and dry as to always convey a to/for relationship. The dative is the “interested” party here.

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    These are exceptions to Dative Alternation. Note that all of them either refer to emotional judgements (envy, begrudge, excuse) rather than to transfers, or are extensions of simple transitive verbs (struck him a knock = knocked him; landed him a blow = struck him, etc). There are some 3 place verbs that don't refer to transfer (elect him president), and they don't do Dative Alternation, either. But if there's a transfer, they usually do. Jun 1, 2014 at 22:28
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    "His wife deemed him a lost cause" doesn't have an indirect object at all. "Him" is the direct object and "a lost cause" is either an objective complement or a predicate nominative. Jun 1, 2014 at 23:26
  • "I'll sport you a twenty" does seem to mean "to" or "for". Jun 1, 2014 at 23:26
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    I said they were three place verbs, not that they were indirect objects. And can to really be used with permit? He permitted the use of the penthouse to her. I'd star it, though forbid does allow to. Permit and forbid can take infinitive complements, of course: She forbids/permits you to go to the dance. But that to is the infinitive marker, not a dative marker. Jun 2, 2014 at 0:15
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    @Wlerin Says who? I’d say S-V-DO-IO is a very non-straightforward analysis, since that word order is not usually permitted except dialectally when both objects are enclitic pronouns. It is much simpler to say that there are simply some constructions where indirect objects cannot undergo dative alternation, and consider verbs like forgive as varyingly mono- and ditransitive (which we already know they are anyway), with the monotransitive use also licensing a prepositional complement that happens to use a preposition that also appears in dative alternation. Jun 2, 2014 at 12:27

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