I have been studying Longman's English grammar book, and something is really confusing me:

  • We can put it and them after the verb: Give it to me. Buy them for me. Do it for me.

  • With e.g. give and buy, we can say: Give me it. Buy me them. (But not *Do me it.)

  • We say: Give it to John. Buy them for John. (Not *Give John it - *Buy John them.)

Why can't I say Buy John it or Give John them?

There is another post related to it that talks about the same topic: Direct and Indirect Objects with the verbs: Give, Buy, and Bring. However, the most voted answer was, indeed, useful for me, but didn't get everything clear.

What's the main rule for inverting the position and dropping the preposition?

As far as I managed to understand, if the direct object is it or them and the indirect object is a pronoun, the normal construction's placement is necessary, i.e.: Subject + Verb + Direct object + To/For + Indirect object

Is this right?

  • 2
    The answer is right there in the question you link to : "It is normal to use this prepositional structure when the direct object is a pronoun." Meaning, only n"normal" for a pronoun.When an ordinary noun is the direct object, you use an indirect object instead. Give John that apple.
    – Spencer
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 2:29
  • In Shoe’s answer it says: This is because pronouns usually refer to things that have already been mentioned, that is, to information that is known to your reader or hearer. In English, new information usually comes at the end of the clause. So when the indirect object is new information and the direct object is not, the indirect iobject is put at the end of the clause.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 2:33
  • Actually, I'm still confused. Does it follow this rule: When the direct object is a pronoun (them, him, it..) and the indirect object is a noun (John..) the normal placement is required: Subject + Verb + Direct object + To + Indirect Object . Right?
    – A.Cool
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 14:56

1 Answer 1


The main rule that determines the order of the two object NPs, and the presence or absence of the preposition is called the Dative Alternation. It's also called Dative Movement or just Dative. This is an English syntactic rule, and has nothing to do with the dative case, which no longer exists in English. The name is just a name.

Dative applies to three-place predicates involving transfer of a Trajector (something that moves; this can be a thing, like give, or it can be information, like tell) from one person (the Source, syntactically the subject) to another person, called the Receiver.

The alternation allows two orders of the object NPs:

  • Source Verb Trajector to Receiver = I gave the book to John
  • Source Verb Receiver Trajector = I gave John the book

This is the normal situation, with two full noun phrases; either order is allowed, and there is no meaning difference.

But, if the Trajector is a pronoun, only the second order is allowed

  • I gave it to John
  • *I gave John it.

It doesn't matter if the Receiver is a pronoun; that can go either way

  • I gave the book to him.
  • I gave him the book.

Incidentally, the Receiver is sometimes called the "Indirect Object", whether or not it has to in front of it. Sometimes people think that one version of the Dative Alternation has an indirect object and the other doesn't. No, they both do; or they both don't, if you don't find the term "indirect object" useful. Terminology, after all, is arbitrary, and can't be discovered.


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