In this article on the changes in English grammar the author says:

How untrammelled the English passive is, may be seen in the fact that, not content with a construction like “A book was given him,” the language has devised “He was given a book.”

Can one really interchange the direct and indirect objects to get "Someone gave a book him" instead of "Someone gave him a book"? Does it sound informally, humorously or incorrectly?

  • Someone gave a book to him. You need to add a preposition if the indirect object is after the direct object. Jul 15, 2015 at 10:54
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    The author means that both the indirect object and the direct object can be the subject when using the passive voice. I gave John a book can turn into a book was given John (by me) or John was given a book (by me). Jul 15, 2015 at 11:10
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    The 'was given him' form predated and (formerly) was more frequent than the 'he was given' form. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – TimR
    Jul 15, 2015 at 12:32
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    @Tim: both forms appear in the 16th century, whereas your Ngram only starts at 1600. You can't really conclude anything about which was first from that Ngram. Jul 15, 2015 at 20:49
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    @se0808 - I think any variety of English accepts, "I sent my mother a letter". British English certainly does. What we do not say is, "I sent a letter my mother" Instead we must say "I sent a letter to my mother." Aug 3, 2015 at 20:52

2 Answers 2


Someone gave a book him is incorrect, ungrammatical.


The sentence structure S-V-DO-IO

Someone-gave-a book-him.

has fallen out of favor, and we now expect the reverse positions of the direct and indirect objects:

Someone-gave-him-a book.

or that indirect object is replaced by the object of the preposition "to":

Someone-gave-a book-to him.

The Ngram viewer shows a steep drop in published uses of "gave it him" over the last two hundred years. But it wasn't always so. Here's some dialogue from All's Well That Ends Well.

KING     ... This ring, you say, was yours?
DIANA   Ay, my good lord.
KING     Where did you buy it? or who gave it you?
DIANA   It was not given me, nor I did not buy it.
KING     Who gave it you?
DIANA   It was not lent me neither.
KING     Where did you find it, then?
DIANA   I found it not.
KING     If it were yours by none of all these ways, how could you give it him?
DIANA   I never gave it him

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    Someone gave a book him was never "in favor". Although someone gave it him (where the first object is a pronoun) indeed was. Jul 16, 2015 at 16:18
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    @PeterShor and is still used today! Jul 17, 2015 at 12:36
  • @Araucaria: I don't think anybody uses it in the US Northeast, but I'll take your word that it's still in use somewhere. Jul 17, 2015 at 12:39
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    @PeterShor There's a little piece about research into "Give it me!" on this page here Jul 17, 2015 at 13:00
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    @PeterShor Oh, yes, and a nice piece about the dialectical difference of it in relation to Am and B English here too Jul 17, 2015 at 13:07

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