Forgive me if I've used the wrong terms in the title, I did my best given my middle-school grammar lessons and Wikipedia.

"I gave her the book" sounds just fine, but "I gave her it" sounds stilted and awkward to me, and I don't know that I've ever seen that construction, with "I gave it to her" taking its place. It's not the two pronouns either, because "I gave Joan it" also sounds odd.

Is there a grammatical reason that such a construct isn't often used? Historical? And are there any other instances where simply substituting a pronoun makes a sentence similarly awkward?

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    I gave her them does not sound quite so bad - but I know what you mean. It is a matter of idiomatic English. Who is to say why? Someone like John Lawler may be able to provide a logical answer. But as a native speaker I just instinctively know what is idiomatic and what isn't. And there probably isn't any substitute, or any better science, than being guided by your instincts.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 0:44
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    There was a question I saw here about why "Where's it?" is wrong, and I believe one of the answers was that the word "it" cannot be in a stressed position. That would seem to explain this. Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 0:47
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    A theory I've seen somewhere is that a pronoun direct object is "encliticized" to the verb -- that is, essentially, made into a suffix. Then, you can't put any words in between the verb and pronoun because of a general prohibition on inserting words inside a word. So far as I know, there isn't any evidence for this idea.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 1:18
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    I think it just doesn't "flow" well and tends to be garbled/misunderstood when used. English has a number of situations like this -- sequences that are perfectly "proper" from the standpoint of syntax and semantics but which are avoided in practice because they sound awkward.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 1:31
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    @HotLicks Or perhaps unrecognisable. We all make deliberate alteration to what we say if the end result is likely to be tongue-twisting/vowel-merging/possibly providing an unfortunate double-entendre etc. So we are just in the habit of providing intelligible diction. And that may be how He threw her it became non-idiomatic.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 9:29

5 Answers 5


Objects are usually nouns — be it direct or indirect and a sentence generally presupposes direct object if there is an indirect object. So the common realisation of the object through noun phrase is replaced by the use of pronouns. To function as an object is a typical function of pronoun in objective case.

They see me (here 'me' is DO)

He is giving me my book (me here is IDO).

She gave (the girl) (a doll)—

To save this basic pattern (SVOO; here OOs are all nouns) from degenerating in total confusion, one of the objects is kept (noun / pronoun - it is a sin qua non) as direct object suffixed to the verb and indirect is distanced from the verb by the supplement of "to/for according to demand of the verb but retaining objective character.

One problematic area of personal pronoun in English is that unlike Spanish it substitutes both living and non-living. The sentence becomes a riddle. Let us take an example.

I teach 'my cat' (IDO) 'how to chuckle' (DO).

By substituting both the objects with "IT" we get this nonsensical sentence.

I teach it it.

Hence grammar says direct object is must/ distance IDO if need be/retain one of the objects as noun if possible because substitution (pronoun) can not surpass the original (noun). By the way, this is my own explanation scholars may find fault with.

Robert Frost rightly remarked, "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words are stung"


This is what's called a "constraint on" the rule (or construction or alternation) known as Dative (or Goal Advancement). Dative relates two different arrangements of direct and indirect objects.

  • Mary told the secret to her motherDativeMary told her mother the secret.
  • Mary brought the book to BillDativeMary brought Bill the book.
  • Mary bought the book for BillDativeMary bought Bill the book.

The constraint has to do with pronoun objects. There is an asymmetry:

  • Mary brought the book to himDativeMary brought him the book.
  • Mary brought it to Bill, but not *Mary brought Bill it.

Stated one way, the constraint says that Dative does not apply if it leaves a pronoun direct object stranded at the end of the clause. Stated another way, it says that if a clause ends in two noun phrases, it should not be with a noun phrase immediately followed by a pronoun (the other way is OK, as long as the last one isn't a pronoun). Both seem to be true; and there may be other generalizations.

But nobody knows "Why". All we can do is report facts and patterns of facts.

  • But "Give me it" is grammatical for me, which this does not allow for.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 19:44
  • It's not for me, unless give me is contracted to gimme. Clearly pronounced and uncontracted, it's ungrammatical. YMMV, of course. Commented May 8, 2016 at 21:38
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    It seems to be partly a BrE/AmE thing. GloWbE has the small total of 54 hits for "give me|us|him|her it|them" (though only single hits with "them" except for "Give me them"), but 34 of these are from GB, and only 7 from US.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 22:30
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    This constraint is indeed much less rigorous in BrE than in AmE – but moreover, even in AmE the constraint is limited to non-deictic pronouns. Unless you adhere to an analytical framework that does not label deictics like this/these and that/those as pronouns at all, they must be explicitly excluded, since they can participate in dative alternation just fine (“Give me that” and “Tell me this” are unquestionably grammatical everywhere, unlike “Give/tell me it”). Commented May 28, 2019 at 16:24
  • Yes, you have to be careful about the labels. But then you always do; most of this stuff is governed lexically, after all. Commented May 28, 2019 at 22:42

It seems a matter of precision and meaning. If I were to say, "I gave her the ball," the common noun "ball" has semantic precision within the sentence as the direct object. It's cognitively satisfying. The indirect object in your sentence (i.e., her) is naturally glossed over given the lack of semantic precision. All pronouns by rule are dependent on antecedents for meaning.

If I wanted to emphasize the indirect object for whatever reason, I'd retain a proper noun, i.e., "I gave Steve it." In the sentence you cited, no precision exists given the combination of (1) an objective pronoun as indirect object and (2) another pronoun as direct object.


I gave Joan the book - this sounds fine. I gave her the book - this sounds fine too. I gave Joan it - this does not sound fine. The reason is simple: 'Give' is a dative verb. And, when you have two objects, the shorter one precedes the longer. I gave it to Joan - this sounds fine, doesn't it?

Also, it is a matter of syntax, and also a matter of how the sentence sounds. Interestingly, in Tamil, which is my mother tongue, you can place the objects in any order and the sentence will sound just fine. In Tamil, again, the verb gets placed at the end.


This is referred to as the Dative Shift.

By moving the dative as you do it obviates the requirement for the adposition. Going through this manoeuvre to make the phrase more transparent and then throwing in a pronoun of obscure reference...

Perhaps I'm just defending how it sounds awkward.

If it sounds awkward, avoid it.

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