Sunday, December 23, 2007

She gave it me

Perhaps because it's the season of giving, I've been noticing more often the BrE use of constructions like She gave it me where in my native AmE dialect I'd have to say She gave it to me or She gave me it. The last two examples are frequently discussed in linguistic theory, under the title of "Dative Alternation". So, let's start with a little terminology, just for terminology's sake.

In sentences like these, the three nouns (or pronouns, in these cases) play different semantic roles, which correspond to grammatical positions and grammatical cases in the sentences:
She is semantically the 'giver' or the 'agent (of giving)'. Grammatically, it is the subject of the sentence and in subjective (or 'nominative') case (i.e. it is she not her).

It is the 'given' or the 'patient' or 'theme' (depending on whose terminology you use) in these sentences; it is the thing that is affected/moved by the giving action. It is in accusative case, although in English, the form of it is no different in the nominative or accusative (or dative, for that matter). Grammatically speaking, it is the direct object [DO] of the sentence.

Me is the 'givee' or the 'goal' in these sentences--it's where the patient 'it' ends up at the conclusion of the described action. We say it's in the dative case, although there is no formal marking on the pronoun that distinguishes the accusative from the dative forms of pronouns in modern English (so accusative and dative can be collectively called 'objective' case in English). Grammatically, it is the indirect object [IO] of the sentence when it doesn't have the to with it, and it is the object of the preposition to when the to is there (although for various reasons, many grammarians call it the 'indirect object' with or without the to).
The thing to know about case in English is that noun case was marked in Old English, with five cases distinguished and case marking on nouns as well as pronouns. But Modern English has very little case marking--and that which it has is concentrated in the pronoun system (e.g. I versus me and my). Because Modern English doesn't mark case on regular nouns and only distinguishes subjective (nominative), objective (accusative/dative) and genitive (possessive) on pronouns, we rely on word order to let us know which semantic roles and grammatical relations the nouns are serving. On the other hand, languages that have more robust case systems (like German or Latin) allow for much freer word order. Here's what says about Old English dative:
Dative: The dative case is the indirect object of the sentence. The indirect object is anything that is benefited by an action, best translated as 'to' or 'for'. For example, in the sentence "I gave the keys to Alex," or more realistically, "I gave Alex the keys," 'Alex' would be in the dative case, without a preposition. It's important to note that, although in modern English the word order rules for indirect objects are quite strict (you can't say "I gave to Alex the keys," or "I gave the keys Alex"), this is not true by any means in Old English. The indirect object is clear no matter where it is in the sentence because of inflection, and thus the dative was frequently shuffled around as need dictated. Like the accusative, the dative was used with prepositions, mostly abstract, non-movemental (similarly to modern German).
In discussing Modern English, linguists write a lot about 'dative alternation', by which they typically mean the possibility of saying either:
She gave me it. or She gave it to me.
But I've seen a lot less written about She gave it me, or similar things like
About a week and a half ago I lost my new bluetooth headset. I was gutted, my wife had just bought it me as a Xmas present and I had lost it. [The Orange Place of Rich, Jan 2007]


The students also started asking me if I knew this or that model, offering to show it me so that we could do it later in the class... [HLT Magazine, Jan 2004],
which are found in British English.

Now, sitting at home, I'm limited in the sources that I can access on this topic, but I did find the following in a 1928 review of Jespersen's A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles by George O. Curme (Language, Vol. 4, No. 2):
In Old English, the dative normally followed the direct object when both forms were personal pronouns. It still keeps its old position here, altho it has lost its old distinctive form: 'Show it me' (Pinero, Sweet Lavender, Act II). In America it is more common to employ here the new dative with to: 'Show it to me.' It seems self-evident here that to me is a dative, not a prepositional phrase. It corresponds to the British simple dative me. Moreover, we find in American English the old simple dative alongside the new dative with to: 'I give it to you' or 'I give it you' (Oemler, Slippy McGee, Ch. V). In this position we have two dative forms, the older simple dative and the new dative with to. The new dative is the result of our desire to give the dative a more distinctive form. In America the old simple dative is now common only before a noun used as a direct object. I gave you a book. Elsewhere we feel that the dative should have a distinctive form.
By 1937 (Language Vol. 13, No. 3), we have Frederic Cassidy writing:
To use [Jespersen's] Give it him argument to deny a word-order distinction of DO and IO, then is a self-contradiction of the worst sort. At least among nouns, there certainly is such distinction.

But even among pronouns what is the true situation? The normal word-order is the same as among nouns, and almost without exception the reverse word-order holds only when it is the DO. In short, this exceptional order is not a free pattern, but a 'bound form' or petrified phrase [...]. It never became an active pattern; neuter it being usually DO and therefore needing no word-order distinction, could violate the ordinary pattern under pressure of rhythmic or other considerations. The nominal order, on the other hand, is a living pattern, permitting all possible combinations of nouns and pronouns and when new words are used, we follow this pattern.
Now, I don't know how Cassidy's claim that DO-IO order is restricted to it DOs relates to Curme's claim that DO-IO order was the usual order for pronouns in Old English. (Did Curme overlook the fact that it was usually it in that position, or was them equally likely to occur in that position in OE?) The it observation remains true in BrE today, though. There are about 6000 UK Google hits for bought it me (once I sorted out the ones that were about buying something called It's me or the dog), but only three for bought them me.

Looking for advice on how to use these forms, there's not much via the Internet. (If I'm going to continue to blog from home, I should really bring my style books back from the office!) The Columbia Guide to Standard American English doesn't acknowledge the existence of the DO-IO order:
Dative is the grammatical case that marked Old English (and Latin) nouns and pronouns functioning as indirect objects or the objects of certain prepositions. Today the preposition to accomplishes periphrastically the dative function as indirect object, as in I gave the keys to him, or syntax does the job alone by putting indirect object before direct object: I gave him the keys.
Then we have a Swiss English-teaching site overtly denying the existence of the DO-IO object order:
The simplest way to look for remnants of dative case in English is to ask yourself whether the preposition "to" is being used or whether there is a verb present which would normally require the use of the preposition "to". For example - "give" is the easiest to remember. You don't say "give it me", rather "give it to me". In this case the verb "to give" is said to be a dative verb, and "me" becomes dative. Note that me is exactly the same in accusative and dative case - this is why dative and accusative are said to have merged into what many people call "object case". [[English] Grammar primer part 2: Dative and Genitive Case]
Within BrE, there is the perception that the DO-IO order (without to) is (in Better Half's words) "common". The Teaching Grammar site at University College London lists Give it me as 'non-standard' but acceptable in some dialect(s), but doesn't say which ones.While BH associates it with London working class, there's more discussion of it on the web as a feature of Lancashire speech. (Very far away from London, in case English geography is not your strong point.) On the BBC Lancashire site, it says:
Lancashire is a rich area in which to study accent, dialect and grammar as Willem explains: "If I were say, playing with my pen in a very annoying way, and you were to take the pen away from me, I might tell you, "Hey, that's my pen, give it me!" but there's also speakers who wouldn't say "Give it to me!" but who would say "Give me it!" and then there's also speakers who would say "Give it me!" This last order "Give it me!" is not very common in Britain in general, but what we find in Lancashire is it's actually the preferred pattern."
The reason I was moved to blog about this phenomenon is that I was hearing it a lot on television last week. One instance was in an ad(vert) for Somerfield supermarkets, in which a woman is complimented on her dress, and she replies "Nigel bought it me". Whether there's been an increase in DO-IO orderings on the television, I cannot say for sure. Still, it strikes me as a symptom of increased tolerance of different dialects on British television and of the increase in use of regional dialects in advertising in particular, where 'northern' can translate into 'trustworthy' or 'down-to-earth'. For more on that point, see voiceover artist Emma Clarke's blog...


malimar said...

As a North-Eastern American, the construction 'she gave it me' sounds kind of uncultured or uneducated, the sort of thing that would come out of the mouth of somebody who says "I'm'a axe you a question". So it's interesting to hear that it's common in Britain (particularly as it fails to jibe with the 'Brits-are-smarter' bias).

maxwheeler said...

My north London native variety (from the 1940s and 50s) had IO-DO order in these double object constructions with personal pronouns, that is: "gave me it", "send you them", etc. But later, maybe through conversation with various northern BrE speakers, or maybe specifically working in Liverpool for 16 years, the other order, DO-IO when the DO is "it", has become familiar and I believe I say it sometimes. There's quite a lot of interesting literature in the linguistic typology/cognitive linguistic field about various principles favouring ordering of two object NPs, that is DO and IO.

biochemist said...

I'm a BrE speaker and can just about imagine saying 'give it me' or perhaps 'tell it me straight' but I agree it isn't 'standard' English. Couldn't this construction be a written-down version of sloppy speech? In certain areas and classes (esp east Midlands of England) the word 'the' is pronounced t' or "tut" - as in DH Lawrence novels. We know that "today" and "tomorrow" arose from "the day" and "the morrow". The phrase 'Give it t'me' requires two adjacent consonants, and could thus become elided and written down as 'give it me'...

Constructions with other prepositions would then be made in parallel to the 'to me' type - for example I heard 'Let me choose you another track on the new CD' on Radio 3 today.

Bill said...

Here is a small but possibly dumb question, does the Somerfield Supermarket sell dresses? Or is the dress mentioned in the commercial not really the point?

Becasue if the supermarket sells dresses, there is a post in there somewhere, and I haven'nt seen that topic on your blog as of yet...

Ginger Yellow said...

It's mainly a Scots thing, isn't it? With some currency further south as well, but not common past Yorkshire, as far as I can tell.

Ster said...

As a north easetern American, I've never heard this construction. It sounds odd to my ears with out the "it."

Cameron said...

Definitely not Scottish, Ginger, or to be more precise I never heard it growing up with ScE, except from English people on TV, and never in RP accents as far as I can recall. It feels northern English to me, although that is just a personal impression of it.

Sili said...

This is certainly something I never learned in school/college (as a Dane), but I know I've picked it up somewhere along the way, because the DO-IO is my preferred version now. It simply 'feels' more natural - less 'stilted'.

But as with so many other things I can't consciously recall when, where or from whom I picked it up. Only that at some point I was aware of the novelty and consciously adopted.

It may be as late as when I started chatting, which would support the Northern origen, since most of my (early) contacts are Northerners.

I have shared labs and offices with people from and/or trained in the North before that, so it may be older in my idiom ...

Zoë Robinson said...

As a Brit, I've only ever heard "give it me" coming from the mouths of the ill-educated; and even then only in cases where the phrase was used as an order (as in "give it me, you [insert course language of choice]").

altadel said...

As an aside, Canadians say "are you done your homework?" and "I'm done my supper, may I be excused?" which to my AmE ear sounds clunky.

Anonymous said...

Moving to University from Nottingham(East Midlands, England) to Southampton on the south coast, people started pointing out when I said 'give it me'. To me it sounds equally correct either way, but I will always drop the 'to' in conversation(despite constantly being told I am wrong).

William from Merseyside said...

"Give it me", "I'll get it you later", "I sent it him" etc. are perfectly correct English. Just because these constructions have fallen out of use in certain parts of England, that doesn't mean that they're wrong. I worked for years in the S.E. of England, and people kept picking me up on these things; I just ignored them. I'm glad to be back again in the N.W., where people speak properly.

Boris said...

No one seems to have mentioned that (at least in the US) "give it me" would be misinterpreted with "me" as the direct object and "it" as the dative, as in "his dog needed someone to bother, so he gave it me" (ok, so you can make up a better example)

Anonymous said...

Not sure if this is related, but my dad (American from Chicago) used to say the expression "She borrowed me the book" to mean "She lent the book to me."

Anonymous said...

I'm from South Manchester on the border of Cheshire and Lancashire but have recently moved down to Cambridge for uni. My friend here pointed out that I always say "gave it me" rather than "gave it to me" or any other variation, but until then I had never realised that the phrase wasn't used by everyone or was even considered ungrammatical or uneducated. At home no one would bat an eye lid if you said "gave it me", "gave her me" (if you were talking about a doll for instance), "gave him me", "gave them me" (shoes etc.) but to say "gave the cake me" or "gave the present me" would be weird and 'incorrect'.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens said...

'He gave it me' = German er gab es mir. in accordance with West Germanic word order. 'He gave me it' = Danish han gav mig det, hence likelier (in England) in an area of Viking setlement such as Lancashire.

David Crosbie said...


Moving to University from Nottingham (East Midlands, England) to Southampton on the south coast, people started pointing out when I said 'give it me'.

I was interested to read this because I'm also from Nottingham. Although I don't personally say Give it me, it does sound sort-of acceptable; now I know why.

(Or perhaps I do say Give it me without realising it.)

Mind you, I wouldn't feel nearly so comfortable with Give them me or Show him her (meaning 'show him to her'). And I suspect very strongly that even in Nottingham it's Give us them, not Give them us.

More generally, it is essentially a so-called clitic pronoun (= it tags onto words rather than standing alone) and hardly ever carries stress. At least in my dialect you can never point at something and say It's the thing; you have to say something like That's the thing. Stressing the determiner (article-like) its before a noun is (for me) very difficult; I could only say Here's my badge, but where's its badge by slowing down and making a meal of it. And stressing pronoun its in e.g. It's its is impossible; I'd have to say something like That's what it belongs to.

So the stress-resistant clitic can, in some dialects, attach to the verb as a unit, allowing the slightly more stress able pronoun to follow. For me, it's only it that seems weak enough — thus allowing only Give it me, I'll give it you, Give it him, Give it us and Give it them.

Come to think of it, there's an even weaker pronoun form spelled 'em. I don't remember hearing Give 'em me, but I suppose it's a fair possibility.

David Crosbie said...

Another afterthought... The it-Object-second construction only seems to work when the pronouns are redundant (in a good sense) anyway. Both Give it me! and Give me it! are super-explicit ways of saying what would be as clear with Give me! or even Give!. In the context, the speaker is the only plausible beneficiary.

Thus in Lynne's examples

1. I lost my new bluetooth headset. I was gutted, my wife had just bought it me as a Xmas present and I had lost it.
Multiple signals as to who the recipient of the headset was, so My wife had just bought it would have conveyed sufficient information. It is also semantically unnecessary, but is demanded by the syntax of buy.

2. asking me if I knew this or that model, offering to show it me so that we could do it later in the class...
Again multiple signs of who might be given a demonstration. Again show it so that we could ... would be clear, if stylistically awkward. Show so we could might or might not communicate the information, since the listener might take it as an intransitive use of show such as 'put in an appearance'.

David Crosbie said...


Because Modern English doesn't mark case on regular nouns and only distinguishes subjective (nominative), objective (accusative/dative) and genitive (possessive) on pronouns, we rely on word order to let us know which semantic roles and grammatical relations the nouns are serving.

That 'because' does seem logical, and certainly it's what I was taught. But it seems it isn't as simple as that.

I checked Leofranc's generalisation about Old English word order in The Cambridge Syntax Guide: The Syntax of Early English. They report that IO-DO word order didn't become fixed in English until the late fourteenth century. But Dative case forms had been merged with Accusative forms in Middle English. Even if the distinction wasn't abolished overnight in 1066, it disappeared centuries before fixed word over took over. The example they give of DO-IO is:

Wolle we sullen Iosep þis chapmen that here come?
'Shall we sell Joseph to those merchants that have come here?'

Both 'Joseph' and 'these merchants' are in the consolidated Objective case. Fortunately, any medieval reader or hearer would know from the bible story that there was no question of selling the merchants to Joseph.

OK, we rely on fixed word order now, but our ancestors got on without it.

(Apparently, there's a link with the rise of the construction I was given a new bluetooth headset. They seem to be implying a causal link, but I'm not sure what exactly is supposed to have caused what.)

mythoman said...

In German something similar to this is possible with proper names which aren’t necessarily marked for case. You could say “Sollen wir Josef Adam verkaufen?” and it would not be quite clear who we should sell to whom.

If the context isn’t obvious it is of course more natural to resolve this ambiguity by saying something like “Sollen wir den Josef dem Adam verkaufen?” (=Joseph to Adam) or “Sollen wir dem Josef den Adam verkaufen?” (=Adam to Joseph) or “Sollen wir Josef an Adam verkaufen?” (=Joseph to Adam).

David Crosbie said...


You could say “Sollen wir Josef Adam verkaufen?” and it would not be quite clear who we should sell to whom.

Well it would, actually. Not to eavesdroppers, probably, but the question would not be uttered unless the identities were clear to the addressee.

In English 'We sold Joseph Adam' seems extremely odd. Even a bit if context doesn't help —'Back in slavery times my great grandfather sold Joseph Adam' won't do either. You need to use a preposition 'sold Adam to Joseph' or an explanatory co-text 'sold Joseph a slave called Adam'.

But turn the sentence into a question, then the reader/hearer who encounters the sentence does not feel obliged interpret immediately. It would serve as the first sentence of a narrative — inviting the reader to read on and make sense of the question. Better still with an unexplained definite time adverbial: 'That day we sold Joseph Adam'.

In most 'ditransitive' clauses (=with two Objects) it's semantically obvious which is the beneficiary and which is the benefit. The fixed word order confirms the roles, but the conformation is generally redundant.

That's why we have no semantic need either where it's optional as in
Give it me / Give me it
my wife had bought it me / bought me it
offering to show it me / show me it

or where it's syntactically necessary as in
We sold our neighbour Josep a slave called Adam.