Can an English sentence have a ‘dative subject’?

I have been thinking about this for a while. It seems to me that, sometimes, the subject plays a dative role in that it is the recipient of something. Take the following active sentence.

He gave me a gift.

If it is made passive, it normally changes as follows.

A gift was given to me (by him).

In which case a gift is clearly nominative and to me clearly dative. However, I often see the following passive construction used instead.

I was given a gift (by him).

In which case I appears to be a sort of nominative-dative, yet I can’t quite explain a gift or what it does in the sentence; it is certainly not accusative. Semantically, I understand the sentence, but I cannot make syntactic sense of it.

After a quick search on Google Ngram, it seems that gift was given me is the oldest possible construction, which makes sense, followed by gift was given to me, which also makes sense. The first instance of I was given a gift appears to be in 1920, from which point it has risen steadily. So it seems quite obvious that it is a new usage.

Is this a ‘correct’ usage, so to speak? How did it come about? Most interestingly to me, how is it explained grammatically? Can it be adequately explained with traditional grammatical terms? or does it require an altogether new analysis?


This is a fairly well-known phenomenon in English grammar;
the simplest explanation is that there are two syntactic processes interacting here.

  • One process (rule, construction) is the Passive,
    which exchanges the subject and the object of a transitive sentence,
    without changing meaning — but adding or subtracting a prepositional phrase:
    The janitor painted the fence. ~ The fence was painted (by the janitor)

  • The other process (rule, construction) is the Dative Alternation,
    which exchanges the direct object and the indirect object of a bitransitive sentence,
    without changing meaning — but adding or subtracting a prepositional phrase:
    The janitor sent us the bill. ~ The janitor sent the bill (to us).

These processes are optional: one can occur, or the other, or both,
as long as their conditions are met. Or neither. So there are variations:

  1. He gave a gift to me.
    (no Dative occurs)
    == Passive ==>
    A gift was given to me by him.
    == Agent Deletion ==>
    A gift was given to me.

  2. He gave a gift to me.
    == Dative ==>
    He gave me a gift.
    == Passive ==>
    I was given a gift by him.
    == Agent Deletion ==>
    I was given a gift.

Both are correct; they’re just variations. The easiest way to look at it is that an indirect object can get promoted to direct object by Dative, and a direct object can get promoted to subject by Passive. If something’s already been promoted once, it can still get promoted further.

The point (the communicational purpose) of the Passive is to downplay the agent subject and get some affected patient object up front for emphasis. Having both these variations allows any noun with a grammatical relation to the verb (Su, DO, IO) to get moved up front, where the action is. It gives the speaker more latitude, and obviously is adaptive, since it’s universal in English (though those prepositions will vary somewhat, as usual).

Source : Link , Question Author : Anonym , Answer Author : John Lawler

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