Consider the following from The Punisher season 2, with names replaced to avoid spoilers:

― Where is Donna, Jim? You tell me where she is, maybe I can pull your ass out of the fire with the NYPD. [Pause.] If we hand Jefferson Donna, then maybe he lets the rest slide.
― And what about Donna? We’re just gonna hand her over too?
― Has she done you any favours lately?

It is clear from this, and the absolutely clear communication both between the characters and between the drama and the viewer, that the preposition may be omitted if this specific sentence structure (namely IO before O) is present. Here another example, using both a common and a proper noun:

― Why won’t you hand Billy the flower pot?
― Because if I hand my brother the flower pot, he’ll break it.

The above is also possible if rewritten using pronouns:

― Why won’t you hand him the flower pot?
― Because if I hand him the flower pot, he’ll break it.

In both cases, we have an S–V–IO–DO structure.

Other languages

Interestingly, the same is possible in e.g. Norwegian:

― Kvifor gjev du honom ikkje blomsterkrukka?
― Av di at viss eg gjev honom blomsterkrukka, kjem han til å knuse henne.

To make the point, I chose the now obsolete han/honom / ho/henne declinations instead of han/han / ho/ho. The same in Bokmål:

― Hvorfor gir du ham ikke blomsterkrukka?
― Fordi at hvis jeg gir ham blomsterkrukka […].

It also works in German:

― Warum gibst du ihm nicht den Blumenkrug?

It appears to be something common to Germanic languages, from what I can tell, but unlike German, neither English nor Norwegian (nor Swedish, nor Danish) decline nouns (in writing) anymore. (Yes, some dialects of Norwegian still preserve the nominative/accusative/dative differentiation (skog, skojinnj, skoja), but this is no longer part of written Norwegian, so that is besides the point.) The only ways to clearly express who the subject, direct object and indirect object are in a sentence, is by using prepositions where needed, or by a fixed sentence structure.

A sentence such as ‘Billy the Man gave a flower’ may be poetic, and with the stress we can add in speech it is obvious who is doing the action to whom, and even whether we are dealing with only a single person or two. In writing it is uncertain: Is it a subject called ‘Billy the Man’ who is giving a flower to someone we do not know? Or a subject called Billy giving the indirect object ‘the Man’ (a mysterious character indeed) a flower? Or is the Man the subject giving Billy the flower? The sentence would be perfectly clear were it instead phrased as ‘Billy gave the Man a flower’ or ‘The Man gave Billy a flower’, or if we used prepositions (to the Man; to Billy).


Given that this is English SE, my question should be focused on English: How and when did this specific sentence structure – that is: where the direct object and indirect object switch places when omitting the indirect object preposition – come to be? Is this a modern invention, such as proliferation in the usage of continuous aspect? Or was this a common practice inherited from when English still was inflected? I am very curious to learn. Also, it would be interesting to know whether there are any important differences in the areas where English is a mother tongue, e.g. Britain and Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, India, and Hong Kong.


Somewhat relevant are these questions:

  • 2
    One very tiny error you've made here is that it is not an indirect object when it is the object of a preposition. An indirect object is always a core argument to the verb, not an adjunct. It's a matter of syntax not of thematic roles. Datives have been around longer than English has, stretching back through Proto-Germanic to Proto-Indo-European, where it had its own case declension as it still does in German today. And you can't always rewrite an indirect object with a preposition via dative alternation: They denied John one last chance to win is such, along with similar privatives.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 4:27
  • 1
    Strongly related.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 4:48
  • @tchrist What do you call it when it is the object of a preposition? Is it a prepositional clause? Excellent example you posited at the end there, of a sentence which cannot be rewritten to dative. Thanks for the link.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 11:26
  • 1
    Direct and indirect objects are two elements of a verb's core arguments; the other is its subject. They occupy syntactic slots and are unmarked by other particles. When a noun phrase is the object of the preposition, it's acting as a prepositional object, which is usually an optional adjunct the way it is in John made a cake for Jane, not a required oblique argument the way it is with John put his glasses on the table. Which of core argument or oblique argument or adjunct doesn't affect the Agent, Patient, and Recipient semantic roles, just the syntax.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 21:14

2 Answers 2


V-IO-DO is nothing new

You asked when we started doing this, putting the indirect object between the verb and the direct object, foregoing any preposition.

There's a slight bit of recency illusion here, because the specific answer to your question is that both orderings of DO and IO have always been permitted in English. It was present in Old English as shown below, and so is ancient. It predates English itself. It’s the restrictions which are “new”; although Old English was never as position-independent as Latin was, it was still much more flexible in its syntactic ordering than the Present Day English we use today is.

The loss of a case system in determiner phrases (not just a lone personal pronoun, which has some case markings left) has caused us to mark the non-Patient NP with a preposition whenever we use any ordering other than IO-DO.

This first started happening in Early Middle English as case inflections of regular noun phrases fell away, and it persists to this day.

Dative alternation, allowed and forbidden

Some types of double-object constructions in Present Day English allow two different possibilities under dative alternation, both the unmarked IO-DO order with the IO glued to the constituent slot directly right of the verb without interventions, and also the DO-IO where the IO gets marked with a preposition and so can now move around a bit, usually to the end.

  1. John gave Jane the book.
    John gave the book to Jane.
  2. John made Jane a cake.
    John made a cake for Jane.

But the only ones that can experience dative alternation are those where one of the two objects is the semantic Recipient or Beneficiary. The Wikipedia article on Dative shift phrases that restriction this way:

The double object construction requires a possessor/possessed relationship. This means the indirect object in the oblique dative construction must have the theta-role of beneficiary (PP introduced by [for]) or recipient/goal (PP introduced by [to]) to be a candidate for the dative alternation.

You can’t do that with these next four double-object scenarios because you can’t use a preposition to mark the non-Patient argument (the indirect object), and we no longer distinguish dative from accusative even in pronouns:

  1. John made Jane president.
  2. The court denied John a public defender.
  3. The flat tire cost John the race.
  4. John bet Jane an ice cream cone.

And here is why you cannot:

  • In (3) this is more like having two direct objects, if you want to think of it that way; historically those were both inflected into the accusative, unlike (1) and (2) where one was accusative and the other dative. There’s no dative to alternate via a preposition there in the first place. This is a type of causative where John causes Jane to become the president.

  • In (4) and (5), you did once have datives there, but the verbs are privative ones and so the indirect object is the Deprivee not the Recipient. It still took the dative case historically, just like most (but not all) prepositional objects once did back in Old English.

    A commenter has taken exception to including deny in verbs that do not alternate, but this is explained by Peter Hallman in Syntactic Neutralization in Double Object Constructions from Linguistic Inquiry volume 46, issue 3, Summer 2015, who mentions the “inter-speaker variation on the grammaticality of these verbs.”

    Grammaticality can vary by speaker and by historical epoch. There is disagreement among researchers about whether, or to what extent, that deny-class double-object verbs are able to alternate with prepositional versions, starting with Levin. Other verbs in this class include bar, begrudge, envy, forbid, forgive, guarantee, refuse, spare, and vouchsafe. Jane can begrudge John the time which it cost her to change out his flat tire, but it seems impossible for her to begrudge that time to or for him. Similarly, if Jane envies John his good looks, then it is hard to see how you could rewrite that with a prepositional phrase.

  • The situation in (6) is that bet is in the bill-class of verbs, which also includes verbs like charge, tax, wager, save. These are not easily alternated, if at all.

There are really all kinds of complex restrictions on double object alternations with prepositional versions. Researchers have been working for a good 50 years on devising theoretical frameworks that explain and predict what is and is not permissible. Shakespeare’s writings include double object constructions like:

  • I will bar no honest man my house.
  • How can I then return in happy plight, That am debarred the benefit of rest?
  • Then the world go's hard When Clifford cannot spare his Friends an oath.
  • What villaine boy, barst me my way in Rome?
  • I am for you, though it cost me ten nights watchings.
  • Go, go into old Titus’ sorrowful house, And hither hale that misbelieving Moor To be adjudged some direful slaught’ring death As punishment for his most wicked life.
  • All your Interest in those Territories, Is utterly bereft you.
  • This Gloster should be quickly rid the World.

Those are like when Dickens wrote:

  • Will you forbid him the house where I know he's safe?

But those may no longer all be completely acceptable to all native speakers of English today. An old example that is almost universally considered unacceptable now is the old Jacobist rhyme:

What is the rhyme for porringer?
The King he had a daughter fair,
And gave the Prince of Orange her.

Today’s speakers don’t like using a personal pronoun for the direct object being given over to the recipient, preferring to write that last line as

And he gave her to an Oranger.

Who gave whom whose what?

In general, without a case inflection system to distinguish the indirect object from the direct object, those two clause constituents must either be strictly ordered (such as IO before DO or vice versa) and their order with respect to the clause's verb fixed such as Objects-Verb or Verb-Objects, or alternately, a preposition or other particle can mark one of those but not the other. (BTW, those with a background in Romance will recognize this same thing happening in languages that aren't Germanic ones, but just how it all works out in each varies a bit.)

That's because whenever a clause has multiple noun phrases, there must always be some way to express the role each noun phrase is playing within that clause. Available mechanisms include ordering these syntactic constituents one way or another, morphological inflections of individual words, or by using function words to connect one to another. Uninflected languages necessarily have fewer choices here, but even when a language does use morphological case for its noun phrases, more complex factors can influence which of several possible strategies the speaker selects.

That's what we see happening in Present Day English in double-object transitive clauses. Under dative alternation, the constituent that's the verb's Beneficiary can occur either as a core argument by placing it immediately after the verb, or else it can be connected via a preposition such as to or for as an adjunct not an argument.

When you use a preposition to mark the Beneficiary, ordering is slightly less important because now other constituents can intervene. But normally we put it after the DO.

Why not direct object first and indirect object second?

In the north of England, there do exist dialects in which the IO-DO order can in the case of pronouns become DO-IO. This is not grammatical in standard English, but is normal in those Englishes. This is no longer possible in Modern English because you can’t tell the indirect object from the direct object otherwise. But it used to be possible to use either one without anybody ever getting confused.

Old English marked NP components by grammatical case, but Modern English does so only when the NP is a personal pronoun, not when it is a determiner phrase. Old English allowed for either ordering of DO and IO because it marked each NP via a distinct case inflection.

This example uses dative before accusative:

  1. hwi God wolde forgifan [þam yfelum mannum]DAT [agenne freodom]ACC

meaning “why God wanted to give evil men their own freedom”. But this one uses accusative before dative:

  1. God betæhte [þone wineard]ACC [þam wisum bocerum]DAT.

meaning “God showed the wise scholars the vineyard” but using the other ordering, so more like “God showed the vineyard to the wise scholars”.

It turns out that the same factors that conditioned which of those two orderings was selected continue through to this present day. Therefore the general observation about ordering in systems with or without case inflection does not take into account extra factors that can influence the choice a speaker will make when more than one choice is available. Please see Verb–Object Order in Old English by S. Pintzuk for much more about this.

Notes harvested from comments

There was some question about the difference between arguments and adjuncts. I wrote:

  • Direct and indirect objects are two elements of a verb's core arguments; the other is its subject. They occupy syntactic slots and are unmarked by other particles. When a noun phrase is the object of the preposition, it's acting as a prepositional object, which is usually an optional adjunct the way it is in John made a cake for Jane, not a required oblique argument the way it is with John put his glasses on the table.

Which one of core argument vs oblique argument vs adjunct doesn't affect actual assignment of the Agent, Patient, and Recipient semantic roles, just the syntax used.

And I provided these two comments to mention some of the historic shifts in the grammars of the Germanic languages:

  • Primitive Germanic was originally a verb-second (V2) language in the main clause but a verb-final (VF) language otherwise. It was also an object-verb (OV) one, not the verb-object (VO) one that Present Day English has become. Word-order evolution over time was not always connected to loss of inflectional case in that some that lost case kept the old ordering while some that kept the case still lost the old ordering.

  • Using the original SOV word-order today sounds archaic or poetic: With this ring I thee wed. But OSV order is just a rhetorical focusing device: His name he told them that night; his reasons, never. You can still see V2 ordering under locative inversion, where SV becomes VS because there's still a non-verb constituent before the verb: Down the lane came the firetruck. The many changes to Germanic languages’ grammar—i.e., to their syntax and morphology—is a very broad topic, and much of it is still under active academic investigation by linguists studying Germanic philology.

  • 1
    This is an absolutely amazing answer which explained not only what I was wondering, but things I did not realise I was wondering about until the comments started popping up. Stay tuned tomorrow; this certainly deserves more than a pat on the back.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 22:34
  • 1
    I'd have to disagree with this statement: "the only ones that can experience dative alternation are those where one of the two objects is the semantic Recipient or Beneficiary". First, I think The court denied a public defender to the man who had been indicted by the grand jury on multiple murder charges is possible. Secondly, in the Seacrest Foundation gave to charity 23.4 percent of its $1,043,582 in expenses for 2018, charity is the semantic recipient, but you cannot omit to before charity.
    – JK2
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 3:55
  • @JK2 The first sounds funny to me. The second is somehow not the same construction.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 10:34
  • @tchrist Could you tell me what aspect of the first sounds funny to you? It's certainly less funny to me than The court denied the man who had been indicted by the grand jury on multiple murder charges a public defender. And here's another example from lexico.com/definition/deny: When a contract with the federation was agreed upon, it denied retroactive benefits to members of this striking union, even members like the applicants, who did not take part in the strike.
    – JK2
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 10:59
  • @JK2 The one you think sounds funny doesn't sound funny to me.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 11:09

The relation between

  • She gave the car to Bill.


  • She gave Bill the car.

is a well-known phenomenon called The Dative Alternation.

Both sentences are grammatical, and they mean the same thing.
There are limitations on the relation, however. For one thing,
if the direct object (here the car) is a pronoun, only the first
variant is grammatical:

  • She gave it to Bill.
  • *She gave Bill it.

And of course, in languages like German with a dative case, the word order is much less important than in English because English has no inflection to do the job.

Oh, and just as you can call the trajector NP (here, the car) the "direct object", whether or not it comes before a preposition, you can also call the receiver NP (here Bill) an "indirect object", whether or not it comes after a preposition. Prepositional phrases can act as subjects and objects, after all; e.g,

Under the stairs is where I'd look for him.

  • 3
    There is the British variant, as it were: John gave it me. For example.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 17:00
  • @Lambie That's only in certain northern English dialects. It is not grammatical in most others.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 17:23
  • 1
  • 2
    @Lambie Nice. See also A multivariate analysis of the Old English ACC+DAT double object alternation, Ludovic De Cuypere, 2014. You may have to download that manually and then rename the file to have a PDF extension so that you can pry it open with a PDF viewer. “ABSTRACT: In Old English, the ditransitive construction with an accusative (direct) object and a dative (indirect) object occurred with two alternating object orders: ACC-DAT vs. DAT-ACC. This study examines the motivations behind the OE speakers’ choice for one of both orders.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 21:56
  • 1
    I assume NP = noun phrase, correct? Otherwise, thank you for an informative and helpful answer; it didn’t answer all of my question, but it provided very useful information.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 22:39

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