Growing up in Alabama, I never heard anyone bastardize the phrase "run over him (with the car)" to "run him over (with the car)", not even on TV or movies.

I first noticed the change as I began to travel North in the Late Seventies. (It's peculiar that this reversal of words is specific ONLY to people being "run over". The same people who say, "ran him over" will still say, "ran over the log", or even "run over the dog", for normal usage.)

The swapped version is now ubiquitous, even in the South, and found in every movie and TV show! No one even notices the inconsistency.

I recently noticed that a TV show made in the Sixties used the unswapped version! This gives us a bit of a time stamp to the change. I strongly suspect that televised media led the change with the masses following suit.

  • 14
    I like the way the title has "evolve" and the body has "bastardize". (PS "evolve" is right)
    – Au101
    Nov 4, 2015 at 3:39
  • 1
    Relevant Language Log post ("run X over/run over X" is discussed in the comments section): Looking over pronouns
    – herisson
    Nov 4, 2015 at 4:51
  • 4
    It didn't. I've been hearing 'run him over' for at least 55 years.
    – user207421
    Nov 4, 2015 at 10:01
  • 1
    “Growing up in Alabama, I NEVER heard ANYONE bastardize the phrase” — No, YOUR way is wrong! Nov 4, 2015 at 12:24
  • 4
    The correct answer is that this didn't happen. Both phrases have been in use for generations.
    – barbecue
    Nov 4, 2015 at 15:51

10 Answers 10


Run him over and run over him have distinctly different nuances for me.

Run him over has clear and malicious intent (to damage with a vehicle)

Run over him, absurdly, admits the possibility that the incident may be for his own good/enjoyment, or at the very least an accident ... (a simple description of an action, without implied intent)

So, a 'bad guy' will try and run someone over. A 'good guy' may run over someone by mistake.

  • It's an interesting idea and I see that others support it. I was a little doubtful myself so I Googled "run over him". There are a couple of cases where you could say it was voluntary (a circus act and a myth about a buffalo) but the vast majority refer to "run over him" with reference to deliberate injury or even murder. Nov 4, 2015 at 12:40
  • I think @Greg Lee's (under-rated) answer (below) explains best the reason for the double meaning. The reason why 'run over' has become dominant in the last 50 years is because phrasal verbs have all become so much more used books.google.com/ngrams/…. And also, of course, there are so many more vehicles today and there is a greater need than 50-years ago for a verb meaning 'knock down with a vehicle'.
    – Dan
    Nov 4, 2015 at 13:57
  • As someone coming from hot network questions, I'd say that @Greg Lee's answer is underrated because it didn't address the swapping of "over" and "him" - though I definitely learned something from that answer! Nov 4, 2015 at 17:43
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    I would actually go so far as to say in my mind "Run him over" expands to "Run him down then run over him" (supporting the "malicious intent" idea). As a tangent : I have never heard "Run down him" but frequently "run him down" - "Run him over" seems to borrow the same grammar. Nov 4, 2015 at 20:42
  • @Raystafarian, perhaps you didn't read the last sentence of my answer.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 5, 2015 at 16:57

I am very surprised that you never heard this idiom 50 years ago. The OED has references going back to this one from 1860: "A carriage..darted under the arch of the gateway, almost running him over."

  • 1
    almost running over him would sound very clumsy
    – cup
    Nov 5, 2015 at 13:29

My suggestion is that it happened by association with other, similar verbs.

Mary knocked over the vase. Mary knocked it over.

Mary ran over the dog. Mary ran it over.

The word 'over' has different meanings in those two cases. However most people aren't linguists by nature. Most of us use language unthinkingly. If it 'sounds right' then we'll say it. The fact that a sequence of words may be illogical doesn't matter to most people as long as their friends can understand them.

  • 1
    Maybe (incredibly) this has to do with the new wave of popularity of the Musketeer saga in the 60's and 70's, sword and cloak, and the phrase "run him through."
    – Ricky
    Nov 3, 2015 at 20:31
  • @Ricky - it's an interesting idea. I'm not familiar with the saga but I certainly know the phrase 'run him through'. Nov 3, 2015 at 20:34
  • It's the oddest thing. In spite of its oftentimes very obvious drawbacks, the entire saga (five novels) is arguably the best novel series "yet written." Most people don't read further than the introductory novel. The best English translation to date is by David Coward. One of the amazing aspects is the narrative style is always in keeping with the age of the lead characters.
    – Ricky
    Nov 3, 2015 at 20:45

The first instance in Google Books of "ran him over" in the sense "ran over him [with something heavy and dangerous]" is from 1936. From New Writing (London: Hogarth Press, Autumn 1936):

Rome was quite a different place in Benjamin's eyes now. In fact it was altogether transformed. There were plenty of people in the street, but no one took any notice of Benjamin. A dog barked furiously at him. A motor car nearly ran him over. A policeman regulating the traffic took him by the shoulder and gave him a violent push.

The next three occurrences are from the period 1941–1950. First from a summary of Lewis v. Jeffress, Court of Appeal of Louisiana (May 7, 1941), printed in Southern Reporter, second series (1941), and reproduced in Cyclopedia of Automobile Law and Practice: With Forms, Volume 9, Part 2 (1954):

A petition alleging that plaintiff was standing by a truck which had transported him to work when he was struck by defendant's automobile, and that defendant failed to straighten his automobile in making a sharp curve, and as a consequence struck plaintiff, knocked him to the ground, and ran him over, was insufficient, without more specific allegations of fact to show negligence, to justify a judgment against defendant, even if the allegations were admitted to be true. Rev. Civ. Code, art. 2315.

Ironically, the actual wording of the plaintiff's petition was

Your petitioner was standing by said truck on which he had been so transported to his work preparatory to removing some tools from said truck, when an automobile driven and operated by W.D. Jeffress, a resident of Jackson Parish, Louisiana, struck your petitioner and knocked him to the ground and ran over him, doing petitioner physical and bodily injuries as hereinafter set forth.

From McCall's, volume 71 (1943):

Then, there were Paval and Mike and Maria. And Nicolas. Here, her face saddened; the lips drooped over bad, stumpy teeth. "Nicolas, he is a cripple. A truck ran him over when he was a little boy. . . ."

And from The Horn Book (January–February 1950):

I have very sad news for you. Remember that boy you took to the puppet show with me and Irene at the public library? Well that boy went to buy some artificial flowers for a teacher in his school (sometime in February she sent him) and a truck ran him over. Isn't it sad?

So with regard to the source of these early instances of "ran him over" in the relevant sense, we have one instance from London (in 1936), one from Louisiana (in 1941), and two from national U.S. magazines (in 1943 and 1950). To me that suggests widely scattered informal use of the syntax, not especially localized Northern U.S. use.

The Library of Congress's Chronicling America newspaper database (which is searchable across the years 1836–1922) has a couple of considerably older matches for "ran him over." From C. Nolte, "A Trip to the Masai Steppes," in The Washington, D.C., National Tribune (January 4, 1900):

At the same moment that I started the rhinoceros selected one of my Somali soldiers—"Hassan Goulet"—ran him over and began to belabor him with his horn, which luckily was not greatly developed yet.

And from "Don't Always Work," in The [Chicago, Illinois] Day Book (June 23, 1913):

He found a horseshoe on the road

And likewise a four-leaf clover,

And as he stopped to pick them up

An auto ran him over.

These examples show that the wording "ran him over" in the sense of "trampled or crushed him" goes back more than a century in published writing.

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    "Run him over" in the destructive sense used here... books.google.com/…
    – barbecue
    Nov 4, 2015 at 15:49
  • Excellent find, barbecue. May I add it to my answer? The quotation comes from an 1839 letter to the editors of The National Intelligence about the loss of the U.S. sloop of war Hornet in a hurricane: "He [the captain of a capsized schooner] was instantly aware of the proximity of the Hornet, and suddenly she burst in sight, scudding north or quartering before the gale: for a moment it appeared to him that she was bent on his annihilation, to run him over and down; he essayed to hail. Bootless effort!"
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 4, 2015 at 17:10

"Run over" is a verb with its own meaning, grammar, and pronunciation. You'll see the difference in pronunciation if you consider:

He ran over the grass.

which is ambiguous in writing, but not in pronunciation. If "over" has less stress than "ran", it specifies the place he ran or the path he took. If "over" has more stress than "ran", it means he affected the grass somehow, probably by driving a vehicle over it.

The difference in stress reflects a difference in constituent structure, and it follows the rule that the last stress in a constituent is strong. When "over" is part of the prepositional phrase "over the grass", the structure is

He ran [over the grass]

and "over" is not at the end of a constituent, so it has comparatively less stress. This is the interpretation meaning that the place he ran was over the grass. However, if "run over" is a verb, the constituent structure is

He [ran over] the grass

and now "over" is at the end of a constituent, the verb, so it has stronger stress.

The grammar is also different for the two structures. A prepositional phrase can be preposed in, for example, a relative clause:

The grass over which he ran was newly planted.

But this is not possible when "over" is part of the verb "run over".

There is nothing very unusual about the verb "run over". English has many such particle verbs, and they have been well studied. One of their special grammatical properties is that the particle can be moved to the right of a following object, and this movement is obligatory when the object is a pronoun.

  • So run over it and run it over ...
    – Dan
    Nov 3, 2015 at 22:37
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    Yep, "to run over" is a verbal phrase, much like "to cut down" or "to beat up". I beat him up, cut him down and ran him over. I didn't beat up him, cut down him and run over him. [NB I obviously really didn't like this guy...!]
    – AndyT
    Nov 4, 2015 at 15:08
  • I find myself wondering, what does the grass do when it's been over run?
    – tjd
    Nov 4, 2015 at 20:06
  • @tjd, one thing that can happen to grass when it is run over is that the wheels of a car of truck can cause deep unsightly ruts in wet weather. Another thing is that the little hillocks in a lawn that develop over a winter, due to freezing and thawing of moisture, can be flattened out by a lawn roller, improving the appearance of the lawn.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 4, 2015 at 21:46
  • The trouble here is that the version the asker is most familiar with here fits the criteria for particle verb-ness: “He ran over him [with the car]” has over stressed and cannot be switched to a form with a preposed preposition (“He, *over whom he ran”). But the particle can precede even pronominal objects. So I wouldn’t say there’s nothing unusual about run over. As pointed out in the Language Log post that sumelic linked to in a comment, run over and look over (perhaps think over as well) are indeed rather unusual. Feb 20, 2017 at 17:26

The two versions appear to be accepted as correct usage now:

Run over (phrasal verb):

  • run over somebody | run over something | run somebody over | run something over

    • (of a vehicle or its driver) to knock a person or an animal down and drive over their body or a part of it. Two children were run over and killed.

Oxford Learners Dictionary

Ngram (run over him vs run him over) suggests that the 'bastardised' version actually became more popular from the late 60's but was used, though less , also before that date.

  • The OP raises an interesting point, because if one is going to put the object pronoun after run it really should be ran him under shouldn't it? But ran him over has been idiomatic in Britain for as long as I remember - i.e. a long time.
    – WS2
    Nov 3, 2015 at 20:40
  • Both versions have been used for decades, as shown in Ngram, though the "run him over" one usage has actually increased from the 60's.
    – user66974
    Nov 3, 2015 at 20:44
  • Note, however, that most of the very early instances of "ran him over" involve either a horse or passenger that is being ridden or transported from one place to another, or a person who is being looked over.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 3, 2015 at 21:19

Donh't the two have different meanings? A car can run into you and knock you over, which means it ran you over. But unless the wheels actually went over you (uncommon nowadays) it did not run over you. It is certainly more common to talk of 'running over an animal' than 'running an animal over', because the result is a flattened body rather than something knocked flying.

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    If a car runs into you and knocks you over, but the wheels don't actually go over you, then I would say the car ran you down rather than ran you over.
    – AndyT
    Nov 4, 2015 at 15:06

This is somewhat speculative about the origins, but, if you compare English with Dutch you notice a distinct difference in how they prefix certain verbs with certain prepositions to form a totally new lexeme distinct from the original verb, often prefixing the verb with the preposition. For example, withholding something is literally saying holding it with you, but the lexeme has shifted to emphasize the with: the object is something that would normally be given but is now being reserved. Similar patterns seem to apply for the prefix out-, for example; to outfox someone is literally to "fox them out" but idiomatically the out- prefix suggests a totality to the action, as with outdoing yourself or outselling your competitors. Dutch goes crazy with this: an inbreaker is their term for a robber and an outfinder is their term for a discoverer (to convey the same meaning analogously in English you would say "breaker-inner" and "finder-outer"); to take something with you is the action known as meenemen or "with-taking.")

Along these lines, it is possible that we use the form ran him over in order to imply that he was overrun: though he generally did not travel under the car, nevertheless, when he and the car collided, the car had so much more power and force than he could ever hope to amass that he was simply destroyed.

The difference with a cat would be that usually the cat is small enough that it does pass underneath you.


When you say, "the auto ran over the man," you are speaking about about what happened to the man. But when you say, "the auto ran him over," you are speaking about what the auto did.

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    Do you have a source that makes this distinction? Grammatically, auto is the subject of both sentences. Nov 3, 2015 at 22:42
  • You may be thinking of "the man was run over by the auto."
    – Casey
    Nov 5, 2015 at 16:26

To say "run over him" means that you ran over, but to "run him over" sound like you taking him somewhere.

  • What support do you have for these claims?
    – Hank
    Feb 20, 2017 at 17:20

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