As a lad I was taught that certain verbs such as "to say," "to describe," "to distribute," and "to explain" can take an indirect object only when it immediately follows a preposition, and that this indirect object can never immediately follow the verb.

New learners of the language are still being inculcated with this dictum, and it is quoted here and there. Today, however, a question arose about these two sentences:

  1. He explained to her what he meant.
  2. He explained what he meant to her.

According to the "rule," the first is incorrect and the second correct. Yet the second is ambiguous: it invites the interpretation that He explained to her his own significance in her life. The first sentence, which is unambiguous, violates the "rule."

Adding insult to injury, one of the expositions of this rule justifies it as follows:

One reason for this may be to avoid creating sentences which are ambiguous or confusing.

Is the "rule" that prohibits an indirect object adjacent to these verbs less a rule than a Best Practice?

  • "and that this indirect object can never immediately follow the verb" -- I'm not sure if I've ever run into this part of the rule (though it sounds like a familiar myth). I read the relevant part in the first link (oocities.org/serdarious/gramch11.html), but can't find this part of the rule (it exists in the general description under 3. Indirect objects, though). I think that author seems to say that the opposite (as in our #2) is possible, even, in the last sentence of that page. – Damkerng T. Oct 26 '16 at 14:28

The reason this rule probably prevails is the structure of double complement sentences in the first place.

This is the double complement structure for "Travis gave the receipts to Betsy" as in Beatrice Santorini's wonderful syntax textbook.

double complement sentence

Note that the receipts are in the DP (roughly a noun phrase) slot labeled theme. All you need to know is that the slot it's in on the left of the verb GET is typically the starting position for subjects in syntactic theory. That means it tends to get filled by DPs, since DPs are the canonical subject.

If you want an understanding of how this rule might have changed, I honestly suggest asking a linguist rather than an English teacher. It seems fairly linked to the fundamentals of syntax rather than an arbitrary constraint.

  • 1
    Lots of food for thought here @eijen . The question arose here at ELL, and involves not only the syntactic problem, but the way in which these dicta are characterized as rules. Because English is polyglot, new learners are desperate for rules on which they can rely—and here a rule which seems so benign leads to ambiguity. Also, I think many learners are taught such rules without their important corollary: Rules are made to be broken. – P. E. Dant Aug 16 '16 at 18:06
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    @P.E.Dant I think another issue is that learners are taught that the "rules" reduce ambiguity when those that actually have a real–rather than stylistic– basis often have very obscure and complex reasons for being. There's a general trade-off in discourse between ambiguity, conciseness, and complexity of acquisition that fluctuates and changes to result in the differing rules we see in languages and dialects, among other things. – eijen Aug 16 '16 at 18:29
  • A canonical post which expands on your comment is sorely needed here. So many frustrated learners present questions whose refrain is But isn't there a rule... or I was taught that this is a rule... A similar class of question revolves around the perception that a dictionary definition or example is binding on language in the same way that Newton's First Law is binding in physics. (+2 @eijen if that were an option!) – P. E. Dant Aug 16 '16 at 18:57

The source of the ambiguity in 2 is because there are two he's, not any other reason. In speech this would be resolved by tone - meant would be emphasized in speech if it was "He explained { what he meant } to her" and he would be emphasized if it was "He explained { what he meant to her }"

If your subject and object don't use the same pronoun the ambiguity doesn't happen.

He explained the rules to Albert = He explained [to] Albert the rules

Also, I don't really think say takes two objects, but technically say is usually qualified with a to X prepositional phrase that expresses to in the sense of "toward". Similar to I'm throwing the trash to the ground.

I'm giving the book to Michael or I'm giving Michael the book

I'm saying yes to Michael or I'm saying Michael yes (fails - this works with tell though - "I'm telling Michael yes")

  • The question isn't "why is this sentence ambiguous?" The question regards the widely-disseminated "rule" regarding the proximity of the indirect object to the verbs say, describe, distribute, and explain, which is puzzling to some new learners in such a construction. – P. E. Dant Aug 16 '16 at 17:32

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