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.