The following sentence has an active voice verb and an indirect object (IO) me and a direct object (DO) book:

"Jeff gave me a book."

As I understand, a passive voice verb comprises (1) a form of the verb be and (2) the past participle of the main verb. That being the case,...

When the above sentence is changed to the passive voice--"A book was given me by Jeff." (where book, previously the DO, now becomes the subject and Jeff, previously the subject, now becomes the object of the preposition by)--does me still function as the IO even though there is no DO present?

Similarly, when written like this--"I was given a book by Jeff."--is book a DO even though the verb is in the passive voice?

Please explain why or why not. Thank you.

  • 2
    You have to put "to" between "given" and "me" as the DO is used as a subject of the passive voice sentence. You can use "agent" to mean "the object of the preposition". Anyway, please post this question here.
    – user140086
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 18:06
  • There are two rules interacting here: Dative and Passive. They're both optional, so you can get sentences with either one, both, or neither. Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 19:04
  • 2
    I think Prof. Lawler means that the "to" is optional. It's a question of style, and possibly of side-of-pondedness. Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 8:20
  • The base form is "to be.” Check out the infinitive.
    – njboot
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 8:00
  • Consider Keenan and Comrie (1977) for a classic discussion on the issue of promotion between argument realization options. The work is focused mainly on relative clauses but treats passive constructions as well
    – user31341
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 15:29

6 Answers 6


First some terminology, so that we can agree what we are talking about. I will distinguish semantic/thematic roles from grammatical functions:

Semantic roles

  • Agent=doer of the action
  • Theme=directly affected/acted upon by the action
  • Goal=end state/location of the Theme

Grammatical functions

  • Subject=noun phrase which agrees with the verb/receives nominative case (I/he/they, etc.)
  • Direct Object = noun phrase adjacent to the verb which gets a semantic role from that verb; receives accusative case (me/him/them, etc.)
  • Indirect Object = noun phrase introduced by the preposition to.

A large part of the confusion in describing verbs like give in English comes from not distinguishing Goal from Indirect Object, and not distinguishing Direct Object from Theme.

Verbs like give in English have two alternate forms:

  1. John gave a book to me.
  2. John gave me a book.

Now lets apply the definitions above to these two sentences.

In both (1) and (2), John is the Agent (doer of the action), and also the Subject (agrees with the verb/would be he as a pronoun).

In (1) a book is the Theme (directly affected by the action) and also the Direct Object (adjacent to the verb and getting a semantic role from it. Me is the Goal (end state/location of the Theme) and also the Indirect Object (introduced by the preposition to).

In (2), however, things change. English has a rule commonly called "Dative Shift" which turns an Indirect Object (introduced by to) into a Direct Object (adjacent to the verb). This doesn't affect the semantic roles of the verb, but it does affect the grammatical functions. So in (2) although me is still the Goal (end state/location of the Theme) it is now the Direct Object (adjacent to the verb). A book is still the Theme (directly affected by the action) but is no longer the Direct Object. We can call it a second object if you like.

Now we can look at the Passive rule in English. Very roughly (because strictly speaking this is not quite correct), the passive in English makes the Direct Object of the active sentence the Subject of the passive sentence, and makes the subject of the active sentence an optional argument introduced by the preposition by. Since there are two active forms in (1) and (2) there should be two corresponding passive forms, and in fact, there are:

  1. A book was given to me (by John).
  2. I was given a book (by John).

In (3) the Direct Object of (1) became the subject, and in (4) the Direct Object of (2) became the subject. Since Passive doesn't care about the semantic roles, only the grammatical functions, we retain the same semantic roles as before: a book is the Theme in both sentences, and me/I is the Goal. Crucially, a book in (4) is not the direct object, but still the "second object" it was in the active form.

Now remember in (2) I said that a book is no longer the direct object of give because the Dative Shift rule makes the Indirect Object into a Direct Object. This predicts that the second object in (2) should not be able to undergo passive, because it it no longer a direct object, and this is in fact the case, as we can see in (5):

  1. *A book was given me.

This contrasts minimally with (3) which contains the preposition to. In that sentence, a book was the direct object in the active form, and therefore is able to be the target of the passive rule.


It's a difficult question. The sense remains the same as indirect and direct object are moved around, but I take it you are not asking about the meaning, but rather the grammar. I shall try to give a theoretical answer and a factual answer.

Theoretically, we need to appeal to a grammatical framework within which the notions "direct object" and "indirect object" are interpretable. The most obvious candidate is Relational Grammar (proposed by Postal and Perlmutter), in which direct object is the grammatical relation "2" and indirect object is the grammatical relation "3". Most nominals bear some grammatical relation to the verb, and those grammatical relations can sometimes be converted to others. However, it is also possible for a nominal to bear no grammatical relation -- such a nominal is called a chomeur (meaning "out of work"). Chomeurs are created when a nominal is "pushed aside" by some other nominal which supplants it.

In RG, passive constructions are created by converting a "2" to a "1" ("1" means "subject") and converting the former "1" to a chomeur, which is the by-phrase of the passive construction. And the marked indirect object construction ("Jeff gave a book to me") can be converted by advancing the "3" to a "2", then as a consequence the former "2" gets converted to a chomeur:

Jeff 1 gave a book 2 to me 3
=> Jeff 1 gave me 2 a book cho

Taking conversion of a "2" to a "1" (i.e. direct object to subject) as defining passivization, the above should yield two possible passives:

A book 1 was given to me 3 by Jeff cho
I 1 was given a book cho by Jeff cho

However, there appears to be no way to get your example

?A book was given me by Jeff

because the subject would have to come from a chomeur, and chomeurs cannot participate in grammatical relations, by definition. They are out of work.

Now, let's turn to some facts that might be relevant. To tell what nominals are direct or indirect objects, we need to find some grammatical phenomenon which is sensitive to grammatical relations. The only thing that occurs to me is the placement of clause adverbs, which cannot be placed between verb and following direct object:

Jeff willingly gave me a book.
*Jeff gave willingly me a book.
?Jeff gave me willingly a book.
Jeff gave me a book willingly.

What does this tell us about the passives? The facts seem consistent with what RG would predict.

A book was given willingly to me by Jeff.
*A book was given willingly me by Jeff.

I wish my grammaticality judgements were clearer about some of these examples, but I hope to have illustrated how the matter can be investigated.

  • Isn't this basically what I said, but using RG terms? (And Jeff gave me willingly a book is probably extraposed. Its kind of tricky to get the adverb in between the two objects otherwise, I assume.
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 20:24
  • Yes, it is very similar to what you said, for the theory part, except the RG account does not appeal to adjacency to the verb as a defining property of direct objects (which is parochial). RG is meant to be an extension of traditional grammar which is principled and applicable to all languages. Your answer is missing a factual part.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 21:11
  • Well I wouldn't define direct object using adjacency either, but in this context it's the simplest usable definition without talking about phrase structure. And yes, the data about adverbs is a nice argument for the non-object status of the second object.
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 22:16
  • Also, since RG assumes that "1" and "2" etc. are primitives, you don't define them at all. And given that (as you well know) the everyday meanings people associate to "subject" and "object" tend to be semantic and not syntactic, relabeling subjects as 1 and objects as 2 ends up perpetuating that problem, I thing. How do we know then, that something is a 1 or a 2? Presumably with a cluster of syntactic properties, no? I was trying to be relatively theory neutral in my answer.
    – Alan Munn
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 23:44
  • @AlanMunn, how do we know that something is a 1 or a 2? That is a request for a discovery procedure, and (following Chomsky) I regard discovery procedures as unscientific. So I don't do them.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 23:57

A 'reduced' indirect object (with 'to' or 'for' omitted) should only be used when there is also a direct object; otherwise the indirect object can be mistaken for a direct object. Your 1st passive example only works because we are smart and know that people aren't given to books. PS: your 'by Jeff' is adverbial and should be marked by a comma; otherwise your 2nd passive example could mean that the book was authored by Jeff.

  • Your PS is wrong. You distinguish between these possibilities by using "A book was given me by Jeff" and "A book by Jeff was given me". Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 21:16
  • I was referring to the final example, where book is not the subject. 'I was given a book [,] by Jeff' should have the comma if Jeff was the agent, rather than the author.
    – AmI
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 18:01

The word order in the sentence is not what determines which is he Subj, O, DO, IO, etc.

It't the role of the verb agents. The verb is where you start in the sentence. Then ask yourself who did it, etc.,

In the end, the book is still the DO. 'me' is still the IO. Jeff is still the acting agent (subject).


In the passive voice you are changing the way you are saying things but the internal meaning of the sentence is the same (Jeff gave me a Book). The meaning of the sentence is the Deep Structure. When you turn it into passive voice, you change how is it shown, that's the Surface Structure.

In order to know whether some element behaves as DO/IO you need to analize it in its deep structure form (Jeff gave me a book). Then, whether or not you change its Surface Structure (the way you present it, with passive voice, for example) does not change the Syntactic Function of the Elements... the OD is called a "retained OD" (as it comes from an Active Voice sentence you add the "retained") and the same with the IO (retained IO).

I hope it helps :D


In an active voice subject is the DOER of action and object is the RECEIVER of action. To be precise, the subject acts and the object is acted upon. One who is affected most is direct object and the other in an indirect fashion is indirect object. The irony of the situation is that the predicator(the verb)if it is a ditransitive verb, takes indirect object first and direct afterwards.

In the passive voice the position reverses— subject of active voice is used as object of preposition "by/ to" and object of the active voice becomes subject. However, this interchange is case sensitive! You follow what is meant. As regards tenses, you are on the right footings.

In passive voice what is pertinent is the RECEIVER, doers are relegated to the background or are forgotten. In passive voice, there is a marked shift in emphasis where doers become passive.

Thus far so better. The problem arises with ditransitive verbs and specially a handful of them poses problem when passives are formed out of them. But that's a separate issue.

Suffice it to say that the erstwhile OBJECT which becomes subject loses its objective nature. But the one which is left out, I mean one of the two objects of active voice, at exactly the same location that it has occupied in the active voice is called RETAINED OBJECT. It still remains direct or indirect object as it had been in the active voice. But don't call them as such because they are called retained objects and, by that definition, they reinforce their being objects.

We may put these objects to an acid test. To determine whether the object thus retained direct or indirect —— ask "what" to the verb to ascertain direct object —— or "to" / "for" before the object to be sure about an indirect object. But above all they are now RETAINED OBJECTS. You may put your examples to test.

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