I was talking with a friend about an event tomorrow, and I wanted to tell him I'd text him tomorrow after the event and let him know what happened. I said, "I'll text you tomorrow what happens."

I said this entirely unmonitored in casual conversation, but it sounded clunky when I heard it out loud. The natural alternative would be "I'll text you what happens tomorrow." This variation brings the "what" phrase immediately after the object, which sounds a little better, but it also introduces ambiguity, especially since it refers to the same time period as the event. I could resolve the ambiguity by saying, "Tomorrow, I'll text you what happens," but that sounds far worse than my original statement.

Is there a best practice (for lack of better term) for dealing with this? Also, would someone be willing to explain what's going on grammatically and linguistically? I'm new to serious grammatical and linguistic studies, but it seems like "what happens" is the retained object, and "tomorrow" is a preposition. Is there a prescriptive and/or descriptive linguistic reason for why these different cases to sound better or worse?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Feb 3 '18 at 21:42
  • @Mari-LouA It appears that you are attempting to answer the question, not to request or provide clarification on the question. Please place answers in the answer box not the comment box. :) – tchrist Feb 4 '18 at 15:01
  • @tchrist comment deleted, there was no grammar analysis involved so I didn't post, I couldn't, post it as an "answer". – Mari-Lou A Feb 4 '18 at 16:14

People use the verb text the same way they use the verb tell: ditransitively, with both a direct object and an indirect one. In other words, you “text someone something”, or under dative alternation, you “text something to someone”.

The problem with your original sentence is that you’ve separated your indirect object from your direct object by placing an adverbial in between them. English has restrictions against that because it throws off our mental parsers. It doesn’t matter that the direct object is the clause “what happens”; the restriction isn’t about length. It’s an ordering restriction.

Notice how even with a simple direct object and a simple adverbial expression you still can’t put the adverb between the indirect object and the direct one:

  1. I’ll tell you *soon the story.

You also can’t split off the indirect object from the verb with an adverb:

  1. I’ll tell *soon you the story.

However, so long as you don’t try to wiggle in next to either side of the indirect object, you can freely place your adverb:

  1. Soon I’ll tell you the story.
  2. I’ll soon tell you the story.
  3. I’ll tell you the story soon.

In your original sentence employing the verb text, you is the indirect object and “what happens” is the direct object. You’re using tomorrow adverbially, and you simply aren’t allowed to stick something between the indirect and direct objects like that. The legal and illegal positions for the time expression with ditransitive text are the same as they are with tell.


From what I can tell, "retained object" refers to passive constructions, which doesn't apply here. I think that "tomorrow" is acting as an adverb here, although it's an adverb that is often put after the object rather than next to the verb: compare "I tomorrow will send you a text", "I will tomorrow send you a text", "I will send tomorrow you a text" and "I will send you a text tomorrow".

The word "text" has been modified from being a noun or adjective to being a verb, and the syntax is still up in the air a bit. Is it an intransitive verb? A transitive verb with the recipient as the object? A transitive verb with the message as the object? And if it has the message as the object, can the object be more generally the nature of the message? If you think about similar verbs, they also present similar issue. "I'll call you what happens" is highly unidiomatic. "I'll send you what happens" is also bad. "I'll email you what happens" is better, but still a bit awkward. Putting an adverb in between simply strengthens the idea that "you" is the object, making "what happens" at the end awkward.

This issue could be avoided by using it as a noun: "I'll send you a text tomorrow telling you what happened."

  • @BillJ Just because a verb has a direct object in one instance does not mean that it can't be used as an intransitive verb. In the advice "Don't text and drive", "text" is used intransitively. – Acccumulation Jan 4 '18 at 20:18
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    I'd analyse your example with "you" as indirect object and "text" as direct object. "What happened" would then be an interrogative (indirect question), so the meaning can be glossed as "I'll send you a text tomorrow telling you the answer to the question 'What happened?'" – BillJ Jan 4 '18 at 20:24
  • I'll send you a text tomorrow telling you what happened. is still ambiguous. Do you intend to tell me what will have happened between now and then, or what has already happened? – Davo Jan 4 '18 at 21:31
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    @Davo I was addressing how to word the statement the OP asked about. Obviously the statement occurs in some context, and my suggestion is intended to be put in that context. If the OP says "I'm going to an event tomorrow. I'll send you a text tomorrow telling you what happened.", it's clear that the text will be about what happened at the event. – Acccumulation Jan 4 '18 at 21:44
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    The syntax isn't up in the air. It works just like "write", "draw", and other verbs that describe actions that create something. E.g., "I'm writing.", "I'm writing a note.", and "I'm writing her a note." are all idiomatic. – eyeballfrog Jan 4 '18 at 21:55

write, call, text, fax about or in reference to.

Rather than answer your question, I have to change the sentence so it falls into what is normally used/seen.

I'll write you **about* what happens, after the event.

I'll text you in reference to what happens, after the event.

It is not grammatical to say: I'll text you what happens.

This is just basic grammar. All those verbs take a direct object or when they don't the object is implied.

I wrote [to someone] to explain the situation.


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