Dative shift

In linguistics, dative shift is a pattern in which the subcategorization of a verb can take on two alternating forms. In the oblique dative (OD) form, the verb takes a noun phrase (NP) and a prepositional phrase (PP), the second of which is not an argument.

John gave [NP a book] [PP to Mary].

In the double object construction (DOC) form the verb takes two noun phrases, both of which are arguments.

John gave [NP Mary] [NP a book].

Synonyms used in the literature

Terms used in literature on dative shift can vary. The chart below provides terms used in this article in bold, along with other common synonyms used elsewhere :

Double object construction Oblique dative Dative alternations
Dative shift Simple dative Dative construction
VP complementation structures Dative complement construction Dative transformation


Traditional grammar suggests (as a “rule of thumb”) that only single-syllable verbs can be in double object construction (DOC).[1]

(3) a. [John] bought [Mary] [a cake]
b. [John] bought [a cake] [for Mary]
(4) a. *[John] acquired [Mary] [a new car]
b. [John] acquired [a new car] [for Mary]

These verbs must have the theta-role of recipient/goal/beneficiary in their theta grid when in DOC form. A theta grid is where theta roles are stored for a particular verb (see Section 2 on the theta role page). In example (5), the DOC form is not permitted, despite the verb root being single syllable, because wash lacks the theta-role of recipient. One explanation for why the verb lacks this theta-role is that there is no possessive relationship between the direct object and the indirect object).[1]

(5) a. *[John] washed [Mary] [the dishes]
b. [John] washed [the dishes][for Mary]

One lexical theory suggests the reason for this lies with the origin of the verbs that allow dative form. Generally, native verbs (Anglo-Saxon) allow dative form, whereas Latinate verbs do not. This is thought to be primarily due to the stress associated with native verbs, rather than etymological conditions.

An additional semantic component constrains some native verbs further. 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.[2] This theory suggests verbs chosen for double-object form are done so before syntactic processes take place. The knowledge of the relationship of possession/possessed (semantic constraint) is learned prior to the class constraint of the verbs (native vs. latinate).

Examples of verb that allow dative form Examples of verbs that do not allow dative form
Tell me your idea *Expose them your answer
Toss me the ball *Recount me a story
Make me a sandwich *Donate her the money
Send me a letter ?Purchase her a birthday cake
Mail me a letter ?Explain me the solution


Chomsky 1955

Noam Chomsky, in The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955, 1975) provides a proposal about dative structure using transformational grammar.[3]

Chomsky's argument suggests that a simple dative like John sent a letter to Mary derives from an underlying form.[4]:335

In this simple dative sentence John sent a letter to Mary, the verb, sent, and its indirect object, to Mary, make up a constituent that excludes the direct object a letter. The simple dative therefore involves an underlying verb phrase (VP) whose subject is a letter and whose object is (to) Mary. The VP sent to Mary is referred to as an inner constituent. This inner constituent is obscured as S-Structure by V Raising[4]:335

Dative complementation:

Examples (6) and (7) show dative complementation before V raising (6) and after V raising (7):

(6) John [VP a letter [V' send to Mary]] (D-Structure)
(7) John send [VP a letter [V' t to Mary]] (S-Structure)

Kayne 1983

In his book, Connectedness and Binary Branching,[5] Richard Kayne proposed an empty preposition being the source of the double-object construction. In his analysis, English prepositions have the ability to assign objective case. Kayne argued an empty preposition was responsible for allowing a double object construction.

(8) V [PP Pe NP]NP

He continued with the notion that an empty preposition (Pe)cannot be the source of case, and inferred that instead the empty preposition could transfer the Case assigned by the verb. He further stipulated Case may only be transferred via prepositions that normally assign object case. Therefore, languages that do not assign object case via prepositions (such as French) cannot take the double-object form.

Barss and Lasnik 1986

In their 1986 paper "A Note on Anaphora and Double Objects," Barss and Lasnik point out a number of asymmetries in the behavior of the two NPs in double object construction. All of their findings point to the same conclusion: in constructions involving a verb phrase of the form V-NP-NP, the first NP c-commands the second, but not vice versa. Specifically, NP1 can bind NP2, but the opposite cannot occur.[6]:347–54 The paper provides significant evidence for rejecting linear phrase structure trees (Figure 1).[6]:347

Larson 1988

Larson proposes that both the oblique dative form and the double object construction are surface representations. He relates the oblique dative and double object structures transformationally.[4]:350

Oblique datives

To account for oblique datives, Larson adopts a proposal originally made by Chomsky (1955/1975), where the deep structure of the dative VP is raised in the surface structure. See Figure 2.

(9) VP[V'[V e][VP[NP a letter][V'[V send [PP to Mary]]]]
Fig. 2 Larson's underlying structure of a simple dative[4]:342
Fig. 3 The V-raising of a simple dative according to Larson[4]:343
Deep structure of VP:[4]:342
Empty V: e
VP complement: a letter send to Mary
The specifier: a letter
Head: send
PP complement: to Mary

The correct ordering of the oblique dative surfaces through head to head movement. See Figure 3. The verb send moves to the empty V position. The verb, give, has two thematic roles that are assigned to the internal arguments: theme: a letter and goal: to Mary. [4]:340 The movement leaves a trace at the original V and creates a sequence of coindexed V positions.[4]:343 Raising is attributed to Case and Inflectional Agreement.[4]:343

Before raising After raising
V is not the head of a projection governed by Inflection The head of topmost VP, V is governed by Inflection
NP is not governed by the verb and cannot receive Case The verb can assign objective case to the NP

Larson's motivations for V'Raising are the same motivations used to derive the surface order of raising in VSO languages, such as Irish. Specifically, the subject NP can receive case from the V, when V governs the NP.

Citing Chomsky (1975, 55) in the process, Larson provides an intuitive explanation of oblique datives, "to Mary forms the small predicate sent-to-Mary. This small predicate is predicated of an "inner subject" a letter, forming a clauselike VP: a letter send to Mary [4]:342

Double object construction

Fig 4: Larson's 1988 account of dative shift[4]:353

Larson states that double object constructions can be syntactically derived by a modern form of dative shift.[4]:335 He argues that properties of the double object construction structured can be explained under a derivational approach.[4]:350 and describes his challenge as one where he must bring the dative shift derivation within the scope of established theoretical principles and constrain it in appropriate ways.[4]:351

First, Larson strengthens the argument that the two NPs as in Figure 2 relate to subject and object position. He states that the governed preposition to has the status of dative case marking.[4]:351 This is similar to case marking appearing on indirect object in more highly inflected languages.[4]:351
Second, Larson extends operations that apply between subjects and objects to structures such as that in Figure 2.[4]:351 Specifically, he looks at passive formation in the inner VP.[4]:351

Two main effects of passive derivation
Withdrawal of case from object position
Suppression of thematic role assignment in subject position

These two effects trigger NP Movement to subject position and the subject theta role is realized by an adjunct phrase.
Larson makes one amendment to the derivation of passives called Argument Demotion, which proposes that subject theta-role is assigned in an adjunct configuration.

Argument demotion: If α is a ɵ-role assigned by Xi, then α may be assigned (up to optionality) to an adjunct of Xi[4]:352

With this amended view of passive formation, Larson derives the double object construction surface representation. Passive absorbs the Case assigned to the indirect object, resulting in to being absorbed. The theta role assigned to the subject of VP undergoes demotion, reducing the position to nonthematic status. The direct object receives its theta-role from V' and under Argument Demotion this theta role must be assigned to a V' adjunct. The direct object is realized as a V' adjunct.[4]:352

Deep structure Surface structure
Indirect object is caseless in its deep position Indirect object undergoes NP movement to VP subject position
VP subject position is nonthematic and empty Verb raises to V-head position, assigning Case to VP subject


Larson gives this passive operation the name "dative shift" – where NP movement promotes an argument to VP subject,[4]:352 as seen in Figure 4.

Contemporary theories

At present, there are two major classes of analyses for Dative Shift; these two classes have been called the Uniform Multiple Meaning approach (Levin, 2008) and the Single Meaning Approach (Hovav & Levin, 2008), with the former being considered the dominant approach.

Uniform multiple meaning approach

In most variants of the Uniform Multiple Meaning approach (Beck & Johnson 2004,[7] Harley 2003,[8] Pinker 1989[9] ), it is assumed that the relationship between the Double Object Construction and the Oblique Dative forms is non-derivational. That is to say that the alternation arises not purely from syntactic factors, but from semantic ones as well: each variation is associated with its own meaning, and hence, each meaning has its own realization of arguments. This shows a clear departure from some of the main beliefs in Larson’s 1988 analysis.

In most realizations of this approach, the Oblique Dative form expresses caused motion (Goldberg, 1995[10] ) while the Double Object variant expresses caused possession. This can be summarized in the following table:

Oblique dative Double object construction
caused motion caused possession

Single meaning approach

Contemporary theories taking the Single Meaning approach continue to consider Dative Shift with the assertion Larson’s 1988 analysis makes: that the Double Object Construction and Oblique Dative variants are associated with the same semantic meaning, but surface differently due to different argument realizations (Hovav & Levin, 2008[11] ). Variants of this approach include Jackendoff’s (1990),[12] in which he provides different analyses for verbs with different types of meaning (e.g. “give” and “sell” vs “throw” and “kick”). This approach - also taken by Hovav and Levin (2008) - is also known as the Verb-Sensitive Approach.

Type of verb Oblique dative Double object construction
give-type verbs caused possession caused possession
throw-type verbs caused motion or caused possession caused possession

Child language acquisition

General notes

Findings have shown[13] that by age three children demonstrate an understanding of dative shift alternation. When presented with both alternations using novel verbs, children are more likely to shift the DOC form into the oblique dative form. For example, children were presented with novel verbs in both the double object construction and oblique dative forms:

(8) "You pilked Petey the cup" (DOC)
(9) "You gorped the keys to Toby" (oblique dative)

After hearing these two forms and then being asked to produce a corresponding alternation for one of the two, children were more likely to produce the oblique dative (10) than the double object construction (11).

(10) "I pilked the cup to Petey" (oblique dative)
(11) "I gorped Toby the keys" (DOC).

Baker's Paradox and original hypotheses

Although DOC and oblique dative forms are common productions for children at age three, the dative shift poses a paradox for young children learning English. The paradox, termed "Baker's Paradox", can be summarized in the following examples.

When children hear both forms:

(12) a. Give money to him (oblique dative form)
b. Give him money (DOC);

Children may formulate a lexical rule, deriving the double object form from the oblique dative form. However, the rule would permit the following example of overgeneralization:

(13) a. Donate money to him.
b. *Donate him money.

Example (13)b is an overgeneralization because they apply dative shift to the verb "donate", whereas in fact "donate" cannot undergo dative shift.[14]:204

When children say ungrammatical sentences, they are not often corrected. How, then, do children avoid overgeneralizations such as the one above? There are 2 main hypotheses which try and explain how children avoid overgeneralizations:

The "conservatism" hypothesis:

This hypothesis proposes that children do not overgeneralize the double object construction to verbs such as "donate" and "whisper" (ex. "John whispers Mary the secret"), because the child never hears ungrammatical double-object forms in their input. The child only recreates forms they hear in their input and does not generalize.[14]:204–205

The "criteria" hypothesis:

This hypothesis proposes that children learn to constrain their rule for dative shift and are able to apply it only to monosyllabic verbs (one-syllable verbs, ex. "give"), which indicate possession changes (ex. "Mary gave John the ball", where "give" denotes a possession change from Mary, to John). In other words, children are quite productive with their speech, applying dative shift to many verbs, but are constrained by morphophonological criteria (monosyllabic vs. polysyllabic verbs), and semantic criteria (possession change).[14]:205

The data

Gropen et al."s 1989 studies[14]:238 investigated these two hypotheses. According to these theorists, a strict "conservatism hypothesis" is false. Children in their studies did not only use the double-object construction with verbs they had heard in that alternation. However, the theorists proposed that a weaker version of the conservatism hypothesis is true, because children used verbs more often than not in the alternation they had heard them used in. In regard to the "criteria hypothesis", evidence shows that children do indeed have criteria-governed productivity, but only in a very general way.

New hypothesis

A new hypothesis was proposed to account for everything the original hypotheses couldn't (Gropen et al., 1989).[14]:203–257 This hypothesis is a mixture of the "weak" conservatism hypothesis, the criteria hypothesis, and lexical information. The main idea presented is that speakers acquire a "dative rule" that operates on two levels: the "broad range" and the "narrow range" levels.

Broad-range level

On the "broad-range level" the rule applies semantically and lexically, or "lexicosemantically". In this account, the syntactic change and semantic constraints of the dative rule are consequences of a single operation, namely the lexicosemantic shift.

Fig 5. Gropen et al.'s "broad-range" level alternation process [14]:242

That is, if a verb beginning in the "X causes Y to go to Z" structure can alternate with the "X causes Z to have Y" structure and the sentence remains well-formed, then the child realizes that this verb can undergo dative shift. Figure 5, to the right, illustrates the alternation process.

Verbs that undergo the "dative shift" rule must also be specified by a possessor-possession relationship. Verbs whose meanings are not cognitively compatible with the notion of a possession change will not produce a coherent semantic structure in the double object construction.

Example DOC Alternating form Reasons for DOC ill/well-formedness
* I drove Chicago the car. I drove the car to Chicago. ill-formed: the verb "drive" requires a semantic structure

corresponding to 'causing Chicago to possess the car',which is nonsense if only people can be possessors.

* I drove Mary the car. I drove the car for Mary. ill-formed: the verb "drive" is not compatible with

the notion of causing to possess

I bought Mary the car. I bought the car for Mary. well-formed: "buying" is a form of causing to possess.

The constraints characterized by this broad-range level form as a combination of children"s lexical, semantic, and syntactic structural innate knowledge, and the frequency of these forms in their input.[14]:240–242

Narrow-range level

On the "narrow-range level" the dative rule constricts the broad-level rule, allowing it only to apply to subclasses of semantically and morphologically similar verbs. Narrow-range rules could be acquired by a procedure that is weakly conservative, in that the only verbs that the child allows to undergo the dative shift freely are those verbs that they have actually heard undergo an alternation, or verbs that are semantically similar to them. The narrow subclasses of verbs are simply the set of verbs that are similar to a verb the child has heard to alternate. ‘Semantic similarity" would be defined as verbs that share most or all of their grammatically-relevant semantic structure (ex. the notions of "go", "be", "have", or "act", and kinds of causal relations such as "cause", "let", and "prevent", including the verbs "throw" and "kick", which share the same general semantic structure of "cause").[14]:244–246

Morphophonological constraint

The final constraint of this proposed hypothesis is the morphophonological constraint. It is proposed that children will apply the morphological constraint to subclasses of alternating verbs that are all from the native class (monosyllabic). If the set of alternating verbs are not all from the native class, then the child will not apply the morphophonological constraint. This account correctly predicts that the morphophonological constraint could apply to some semantic subclasses, but not others. For example, children would apply the constraint to the following five subclasses of alternating verbs:

Verb subclass Grammatical example Ungrammatical example
1. giving John gave Mary the book. *John donated/contributed Mary the book.
2. communication John told Mary the news. *John explained/announced/reported Mary the news.
3. creation John baked Mary a cake. *John constructed/designed/created Mary a cake.
4. sending John shipped Mary a parcel. *John transported Mary a parcel.
5. obtaining John bought Mary some food. *John obtained/collected Mary some food.

Children would not apply the constraint to the class of "future having" verbs because they are not all from the native (monosyllabic) class, thereby allowing the following DOC examples to be well-formed:

(14) John assigned/allotted/guaranteed/bequeathed Mary four tickets.

See also


  1. 1 2 Payne, Thomas (2011). Understanding English Grammar. pp. 322–323.
  2. Mazurkewich, Irene; White (1984). "The acquisition of the dative alternation: Unlearning overgeneralizations". Cognition. 16: 261–283. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(84)90030-1.
  3. Chomsky, Noam (1975). The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. New York. ISBN 0-306-30760-X.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Larson, Richard K. (1988). "On the Double Object Construction". Linguistic Inquiry. Summer 19 (3).
  5. Kayne, Richard S. (1983). Connectedness and Binary Branching. U.S.A: Foris Publications. pp. 193–196. ISBN 90-6765-028-5.
  6. 1 2 Barss, A; Lasnik (1986). "A Note on Anaphora and Double Objects". Linguistic Inquiry 17
  7. Beck & Johnson (2004). "Double Objects Again". Linguistic Inquiry. Winter (35): 97–123.
  8. Harley, H. (2003). "Possession and the Double Object Construction". Linguistic Variation Yearbook. 2: 31–70. doi:10.1075/livy.2.04har.
  9. Pinker, Steven (June 1989). "The Learnability and Acquisition of the Dative Alternation in English". Language. 65 (2): 203–257. doi:10.2307/415332.
  10. Goldberg, Adele (1995). Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  11. Hoavav & Levin (2008). "The English dative alternation: The case for verb sensitivity". 44: 129–167.
  12. Jackendoff, R. (1990). "On Larson's Analysis of the Double Object Construction". Linguistic Inquiry. 21: 427–456.
  13. 1 2 Conwell, Erin; Demuth (May 2007). "Early Syntactic productivity: Evidence from dative shift". Elsevier 103 (2): 163–179.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Gropen, J; Wilson (1989). "The Learnability and Acquisition of the Dative Alternation in English". Language 65: 204.
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