In the following sentence, the need for the at preposition is clear:

"He threw something at him"

However, if I started the sentence the other way round, it would feel (at least to me) as if the preposition was no longer needed:

"He threw him something"

The question is:

Is it correct to omit the preposition when the person (indirect object?) is mentioned first?

UPDATE: This would seem at a first glance as a normal Dative Alteration, as many of the responses told, but a Dative Alteration also implies the use of "to" or "for" prepositions, because the indirect object should respond to "to whom" and "for whom" questions. So, since in this case the preposition at use is "at", what happens to the alteration? Is it still a valid Dative Alteration?

UPDATE: After the overwhelming responses that stated that what follows the preposition "at" is not an indirect object, then the case of the Dative Alteration does not apply, apparently turning the alteration from "He threw something at him" into "He threw him something" invalid.

Nonetheless, I've googled a lot on this matter looking for appearances of "threw him a" (expecting a following noun) and found no contradicting results. In all cases what followed was a noun that always meant some kind of help or utility but no harm (a slice of bread, a coin, a handkerchief, a smile, a kiss).

The only exception I've found was in the case of baseball, where pitchers "threw batters a slow or fast ball", in an attempt to make the batter miss the ball, instead of actually catching it.

All things considered, I'm closing the question, and finally accepting John's answer (and comments) as correct.

Thank you.

  • I believe the answer to your general question "is it correct to omit the preposition when the person (indirect object) is mentioned first?" is "it depends on the verb." For example "he drew an elephant for me" can be shortened to "he drew me an elephant", but "he destroyed the evidence for me" cannot be shortened to "he destroyed me the evidence". Dec 27, 2011 at 12:45
  • 1
    Right. That's the codicil to the extension of Dative to benefactives (the second bunch of examples below). The object of for has to wind up getting the direct object by virtue of whatever action the verb describes; there has to be a receiver, in short. That's what Dative is for, I think. Like Passive, Dislocations, Extraposition, Wh-Fronting, and dozens of other rules, it functions at least in part to move around chunks of the sentence that we think are important to places like the front or the end where they get noticed. But only some chunks, and only in some ways. Dec 27, 2011 at 16:10

4 Answers 4


To throw s.t. at s.o. is to throw s.t. with the intention of hitting s.o. with it.
The at is directional and volitional. It's an idiom.

This is not the same thing as the Dative Alternation, which alternates the
two constructions with verbs of transfer:

  • He threw/gave/brought/mailed/told s.t. to s.o.
  • He threw/gave/brought/mailed/told s.o. s.t.

Only to (or for, in benefactives where s.o. winds up possessing s.t)
will work with this alternation; not at.

  • He dug/bought/found/cooked s.t. for s.o.
  • He dug/bought/found/cooked s.o. s.t..
  • I see that everyone agrees that dative alterations can only be done to "to" and "for" constructions. But what in the case of the example, is the alternation valid or not? Is it possible that it is part of another kind of alteration? The article you mentioned says nothing about "at" preposition, so, I don't see if this fits to the OP (it was a very interesting read anyways).
    – drakorg
    Dec 27, 2011 at 17:11
  • No. There is no alternation with throw at. The idiomatic construction that I mentioned in the first sentence above is throw X (at Y), where X is what gets thrown and Y is the (optional) person or other target that the thrown object is (optionally) aimed at, or which (coincidentally or volitionally) gets hit by the thrown object. That's the only permissible order they can occur in, since you can't put an adverbial phrase like at Y between a verb (throw) and its direct object (X) in English. Dec 27, 2011 at 20:07
  • 1
    It just occurred to me that I didn't mention that if you throw s.t. to s.o, you are expecting them to catch it. It is not an aggressive act. But if you throw s.t. at s.o, you are intending to hit them. It is an aggressive act. There is a big difference. Dec 27, 2011 at 20:22

You might be interested in what Steven Pinker has to say on such constructions here. He takes the two examples Give a muffin to the mouse and Give the mouse a muffin and shows that the two sentences are conceptually different in that, in the first, something is done to the muffin and, in the second, something is done to the mouse. He develops the theme in Chapter 2 of 'The Stuff of Thought’.

  • 1
    They are certainly grammatically different in that they have different direct objects (which can be passivized); semantic difference, if any, is a much more controversial matter. Dec 27, 2011 at 16:04
  • I wouldn't like to enter into that kind of analysis. In this case I wouldn't mind if there is a slight difference present between a normal sentence and its alternation.
    – drakorg
    Dec 27, 2011 at 17:16

"Al threw him the ball" is absolutely fine, and sounds more natural to me (BrE) than the 'to' version

'him' = Indirect Object

'the ball' = Direct Object

As John Lawler and alcas have said, we can only use the indirect object to replace prepositional phrases with 'to' and 'for'. Notice how the order of Direct Object and Indirect Object are reversed when we omit the preposition.

Al threw him the ball = Al threw the ball to him

She cooked him supper = She cooked supper for him

With all other prepositions, we need the full prepositional phrase, which always comes after the Direct Object:

He threw something at him.

So 'He threw at him something' is an impossible construction

See: http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000018.htm

  • "An indirect object precedes the direct object and tells to whom or for whom the action of the verb is done and who is receiving the direct object", so in the case of the example, "him", according to this article, is not even an indirect object, because it does not respond "to whom" or "for whom". Is this what you are trying to say?
    – drakorg
    Dec 27, 2011 at 17:03
  • I think that everyone is taking the "to/for" thing too literally and that it doesn't change the substantial matter of the alteration. I also think that the alteration in those cases, actually kind of degrades the altered version, because it cuts off the preposition, which could be useful to infer the intention. For example: "He threw him a knife" vs "He threw him a knife while he was not looking with the intention to kill him". The core of the alteration remains, but the minimal version just doesn't seem to have enough information to infer intention.
    – drakorg
    Dec 27, 2011 at 17:22
  • 1
    @Eduardo - In your second example 'He threw him something', that's exactly what I'm saying - it means precisely 'He threw something to him'. What else could it mean? - It certainly doesn't mean 'at him'. That 'at' is mandatory and must go after the D.O. Dec 27, 2011 at 20:46
  • IMO "He throw a knife at him, with the intention to kill him." can be altered into "He threw him a knife with the intention to kill him", but that does not necessarily mean that the knife was thrown to him, but at him. So, what I'm saying is that the use of the altered form does not necessarily imply the use of "to", at least in this case. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it is worth mentioning anyways.
    – drakorg
    Dec 27, 2011 at 23:03
  • Sorry, but "He threw him a knife" means exactly "He threw a knife to him", (i.e. for him to use) and only that. I can't imagine any native speaker thinking "at" was meant in that context. John Lawler is absolutely correct (and he should know; he's a retired linguistics professor!). Check this definition of indirect object:englishplus.com/grammar/00000018.htm, or the examples here: usingenglish.com/glossary/indirect-object.html Dec 30, 2011 at 20:11

"He threw at him something" would definitely sound strange to most English speakers. But "He threw him something" is only a little better.

The clearest thing to say is, "Al threw a book to Bob" (or whatever the details). "Al threw Bob a ball" is correct but, in my opinion, a little awkward.

Note there's a big difference between "thew at" and "threw to". If I say, "Al threw a book TO Bob", the implication is that he expected Bob to catch it. If I say, "Al threw a book AT Bob", the implication is that he expected to hurt Bob with it.

  • I'm aware of the difference between throwing something to someone and throwing something at someone, thank you; but despite that difference in meaning, I think that the transformation should still be valid.
    – drakorg
    Dec 27, 2011 at 4:59
  • 4
    But the point is that "he threw him something" means "he threw something to him", not "he threw something at him."
    – alcas
    Dec 27, 2011 at 5:40
  • Are you 100% sure about this?
    – drakorg
    Dec 27, 2011 at 16:57
  • 2
    @Euardo - I support of alcas I am 100% sure he is right. Just google 'indirect object'. Any grammar website will back us up. I've already given you a link above. Dec 27, 2011 at 20:52
  • 1
    @Eduardo: Not with throw. Maybe for "She looked me in the eye"; here the only possible preposition that corresponds is "She looked at me." But you cannot change "He threw the ball at me" to "He threw me the ball". That means "He threw the ball to me". Dec 28, 2011 at 12:36

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