Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dative Shifts and Prime Rib Dinners

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2012

In the episode of StoryCorps that aired on August 24, a man named Daniel Ross tells about serving as an inmate firefighter — that is, one of many prisoners who are put to work fighting wildfires out west. He says that after he and his team had put out one fire, the residents of the fire-ravaged area wanted to show their appreciation. In Ross’s words:

The townspeople wanted to donate us a prime rib dinner.

This is an interesting sentence to a syntactician. In English, a well-known verb alternation is the dative shift, exemplified in pairs of sentences like these:

  • Give a bone to the dog.
  • Give the dog a bone.

In the first sentence, give is just a transitive verb taking a direct object (a bone), and a to prepositional phrase indicates the receiver. In the second one, give is a ditransitive verb; that is, it takes both an indirect object (the dog) and a direct object, in a so-called double-object construction. A proper analysis of the dative shift should allow both kinds of construction, but (and here’s the tricky part) not with just any old verb, even if it does involve a recipient and a received item. In particular, it is usually noted that Latinate verbs such as donate do not undergo dative shift. Here are some sample sentences from a few papers I found by Googling “donate” and “dative shift”.

  • I donated money to the Red Cross.
    *I donated the Red Cross money.
  • I donated money to charity.
    *I donated charity money.
  • Schilling donated the ball to the hospital.
    *Schilling donated the hospital the ball.
  • Mary donated a million dollars to me.
    *Mary donated me a million dollars.

Daniel Ross’s sentence, though, has donate in a double-object construction. It’s pretty easy to find other examples like his, too. I went to Mark Davies’ BYU Corpora interface to Google Books, searched for “[donate] us” and “[donate] me”, and found these in short order. There are more where they came from:

  • Now, mind you, we were not asking that you donate us any money
  • Next month someone may donate us an office.
  • If you want to donate us something for dog food, …
  • Slim Fast heard about my fundraising … and donated me another crate of Slim Fast cans
  • Across the hallway the second great genius of our age donated me a bright blue eye from his crusted mussel shell of a face.
  • I’m so grateful you’d think she’s just donated me one of her kidneys.

I’m not saying that analyses of dative shift no longer need to exclude certain verbs from participating in this alternation. However, the canonical exclusion, donate, isn’t such a good example, after all.


13 Responses to “Dative Shifts and Prime Rib Dinners”

  1. The Ridger said

    Oh, dear. That’s one of my prime examples – though fortunately (?) I’ve not had a student yet who’s said “I say that all the time!”

  2. The Ridger said

    What’s your feel for a dative passive? “We were donated a dinner” or “the library was donated some books”. Google has a lot of “we were donated a/some” but almost all the “he was donated” are things like “he (a dog) was donated to the Marine Corps”, so not the same thing. It feels off to me (though of course perfectly clear) and I wonder if it’s not (before the Internet) the sort of thing that’s restricted to speech. I see a lot of the hits you cite are also with “me/us”.

  3. ruakh said

    Although I’ve always heard and accepted give vs. donate as an example of verb-that-allows-dative-shift vs. verb-that-does-not, I have to admit that Ross’s sentence sounds pretty O.K. to me; on reflection, I find it slightly colloquial (or even “slightly ignorant”, if I let myself wax snobbish about it), but it totally slipped under my radar on first read.

    Of your supposedly-ungrammatical examples from papers, I find ?”Mary donated me a million dollars” to be similar; ?”Schilling donated the hospital the ball” to be not quite as good (maybe because “the ball” is definite??), ?”I donated the Red Cross money” to be pretty bad (I think because the Red Cross is hopefully/presumably not the true beneficiary; expanding the sentence to something like ?”the building owner donated the Red Cross some new office space” makes it sound a lot better to me, I think because it fixes that issue); and *”I donated charity money” sounds absolutely terrible (I think because “money to charity” is almost an idiom; I find ?”I gave charity money” to be almost as bad).

    So dative-shifted “donate”, in addition to obviously being rarer than dative-shifted “give”, also seems to be more restricted in its uses, at least according to the grammar of how-acceptable-I-find-these-utterances. (Naturally, that might not be the same as the grammar of what-utterances-people-will-actually-generate.)

    • the ridger said

      For me, the problem with “charity money” is it sounds like noun-noun modification, leaving no dative for “donated” (or “gave”, for that matter). It’s better as “I donated a/the charity money”.

      • ruakh said

        Eh, I don’t know. It looks like noun-noun modification, on the computer screen, but in speech I think the prosody would be, or at least could be, quite different: “I donated CHARITY-money” would be noun-noun modification, whereas ?”I donated charity [caesura] MONEY” would be ditransitive. (I assume that if we had a mutual friend named Charity, you’d have no issue with “I gave Charity money”?)

      • the ridger said

        No, I wouldn’t – and you’re right about the prosody.

      • Yeah, “I donated charity money” sounds like “I took money that had been set aside for charity, and donated it to something else.” However, the ambiguity remains in “I donated the charity money” — which could just mean I donated all of the money that had been set aside.

      • the ridger said

        You’re absolutely right: “I donated the charity money” does sound like I used up my budget for charity.

  4. said

    You may be interested in the lists in Huddleston and Pullam’s Cambridge Grammar of the English Language at p.309, where indirect object or ‘to’ capable (ditransitive) verbs are nearly all A/S (though not, for instance ‘deny’), and the ‘to only verbs all French i.e. Latinate. They draw a similar distinction for ditransitive verbs with ‘for’. Imho (first time I’ve ever tried that), I find ditransitive ‘donate’ very awkward; however I do not always agree with Huddleston and Pullum either, e.g. among their Oi only verbs I would accept both ‘refuse her nothing’ and ‘refuse nothing to her’

  5. I’ve published a couple of papers on this and always get “those donate sentences sound alright to me” type comments from reviewers (I’ve started using “suggest” as my Latinate example – nobody likes “John suggested Mary the trip). Interestingly, though, adults regard DO-datives as ungrammatical even with novel pseudo-Latinate verbs – see

    • said

      For those of you who may be a little baffled on looking at the title of Dr Ambridge’s paper, it really is supposed to read ” The role of x, y and z in the retreat from … errors”. The paper itself is somewhat more accessible (in spite of a capital letter following a colon in the first paragraph) but: it is very hard to read as the tables and figures are separated from the text; one will need to read at least one book for full details of the rating and training procedure and there is no description of sampling method; and there are some unfamiliar (to me) presentations of statistics, starting with the description of a sample e.g. “20 children aged 5; 4-6;4 (M5;10)”. However the language is generally more lucid, and the argument interesting and reasonably convincing if one assumes a correct reading of the data.

    • Neal said

      Interesting paper. Thanks for posting it. For the rest of you readers, Ben cites Fellbaum (2005) as a study that finds many more examples of double-object donate.

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