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This might be a most frequently asked question, but I am quite confused about the difference between the transitive and the ditransitive usage of verbs such as give, write, and buy which can take an indirect object or a prepositional phrase.

  1. I wrote a letter to John. (with prepositional phrase)
  2. i wrote John a letter. (with indirect object)

In (1), the letter has already arrived and John now has the letter in his keeping.

In (2), it is not clear whether John has received the letter and now possesses it, right?

Then, how about give?

  1. I gave John five dollars. (with indirect object)
  2. I gave five dollars to John. (with prepositional phrase)

I understand that in (3), it is apparent that John has got five dollars (meaning he possesses it, not that he has received it).

However, if the difference in (1) and (2) is applicable here, we would expect that (4) means either

  • (i) John has got five dollars.

or

  • (ii) John has not got five dollars.

The question is: Is it possible to interpret (4) as (ii)?

I find it confusing because I think as soon as someone give something to someone the receiver gets the thing. I really appreciate any answer, suggestion, or intuition.

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    They mean essentially the same thing. The difference is in emphasis -- the thing named first usually receives more attention. Of course, whether John still has the five dollars or spent it on booze is impossible to answer. – Hot Licks May 10 '20 at 14:56
  • @David I'm guessing (and the comments have now gone), but it's often considered the least of three evils to close-vote and give an answer in 'comments' (less than CV-ing and answer ing, or leaving OP in the dark). – Edwin Ashworth May 10 '20 at 15:50
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    "I gave five dollars to John" sounds rather unusual to my ears. I think it would usually be triggered by context, eg "I've given the kids their fare home ... I gave Tracy and Luke three dollars, and I gave five dollars to John." This fronts the amount given to John, rather than John, emphasising the difference in amount given. _But either usage is 'correct', and the S-V-IO-DO usage more common. – Edwin Ashworth May 10 '20 at 16:03
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The difference between the sentences is not in the meaning but in the construction This concerns "the dative shift" - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dative_shift.

The difference centres on the double object construction (DOC) and the oblique dative (OD)

Taking much from that article:

*He said to me something.

To say is strongly monotransitive but has an optional adverbial complement.

He said something.

He said something quietly.

He said something about her.

He said something to her.

The object of "to say" is always the actual words or a description of what is/was/will be said. It can have no other object.

1 .....He.......said.................to me........................[that he was happy]

1a Subject....Verb....complement (adverbial)...[object = content clause..]

2a .....He.......said.........[……something]…..........to me.

2b .....He.......said.........[……something]…...about the decision.

2c Subject....Verb ....[........object...........]...complement (adverbial)

There are verbs that have a mandatory adverbial complement - consider

1 *He put.

2 *He put it

3 He put it down/up.

4 He put it to me/over the door/outside.

There are other verbs that have an optional adverbial complement:

5 He gave

6 He gave freely

7 He gave it

8 He gave it freely.

9 He gave it to her.

10 He gave it to her freely.

11 He gave me the book - not you. (acceptable)

12 He gave to me the book - not you. (archaic/poetic)

13 He gave to me the book - not to you. (archaic/poetic)

14 He gave the book to me - not you.

15 He gave the book to me - not to you.

16 He gave the book me - not you. (irregular/informal)

17 He gave the book me - not to you. (irregular/informal)

11 is acceptable where the context is unambiguous. It is unlikely that anyone would give another person to a book, and, if that was what was meant, it would be expressed clearly.

However: "The king gave him her" would have to have context, and would, in any case, be unlikely to be used.

.....He.......gave....[the book].................to me

Subject....Verb ....[..object..]... complement (adverbial)

.....He.......gave.........[......me/John...........]......[the book] (acceptable where the context is unambiguous)

Subject....Verb .........[dative substantive..].......[object] (Oblique dative)

Subject....Verb ......[complement (adverbial)]..[object]

The dative implies a "to" or "for" to the substantive; this then produces a prepositional modifier.

It would seem that

(i) all indirect objects are adverbial complements but

(ii) not all adverbial complements are indirect objects

(iii) that adverbial complements may be mandatory or optional.

(iv) The perceived difference is that the adverbial complement is more closely associated with the verb than the indirect object, and

(v) to has the nuance of movement about it. For has the nuance of benefiting.

It is clear that the following adverbial complements are not indirect objects:

He rode his horse to London The water changed to ice The horse turned to the left.

POSITION 1a He said nothing to me. 1b To me, he said nothing. 1c He, to me, said nothing. 1d He said, to me, nothing.

2a He said nothing about the matter. 2b About the matter, he said nothing. 2c He, about the matter, said nothing. 2d He said, about the matter, nothing.

In both cases, a and b are natural, but c and d are "clunky"

"He gave me the book", might seem wrong for two reasons 1. "the book" indicates a previously mentioned book. "He gave me a book" is perfectly normal, as is "He gave me the book that he had stolen." 2. There appears to be two direct objects.

The missing "to" gives the appearance of two direct objects. However, the disappearing preposition is something that English accepts:

Answer me + Answer this question = "Answer me this question", -> "Answer for me this question"

Ask John + Ask a few questions = "Ask John a few questions", -> "Ask a few questions of John."

Strike him + strike a heavy blow = "Strike him with a heavy blow", or "Strike a heavy blow at him.

Compare also He gave the cake to her for her birthday

He made the cake for her for her birthday

He gave the cake to her willingly

He made the cake for her willingly

He gave the cake willingly to her

He made the cake willingly for her

To her / for her birthday are simply two prepositional phrases

But *He gave the cake for her birthday to her. *He made the cake for her birthday for her.

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  • There's also the occasional example of indirect objects used with verbs that are less benefactive than they are privative, such as a guard denying him entry to some event. The cases of doing someone a favor and doing someone harm seem related, although whether those should use for or to in their prepositional rewrites is strangely different in the two cases. – tchrist May 10 '20 at 16:35
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There is no essential difference between the different versions of the sentences, and there is certainly no difference in interpretation with respect to somebody having actually received something.

However, there is a subtle difference in the focus of the statements.


"I wrote a letter—"
"Oh, who did you write it to?"
"—to John."

Here, the focus in on writing a letter, and the clarification is who it was written to.


"I wrote John—"
"Oh, what did you write him?"
"—a letter."

Here, the focus is on writing to John, and the clarification is what it was. (Note that it could have been a letter, a poem, an email message, and so on.)


"I wrote a letter to John."
"I wrote John a letter."

While both versions of the sentence convey exactly the same information, the placement of the nouns subtly shifts the focus.

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  • The title of this question used a pronominal formulation that may not be acceptable to all native speakers. Dative shift from a verb’s indirect object core argument to a prepositional phrase’s prepositional object may no longer sound quite right when that object is a personal pronoun. In other words, Give him five bucks is not fully equivalent to Give five bucks to him because that to him is jarring in a way that to John would not be. – tchrist May 10 '20 at 16:05

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