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Comparing these two sentences:

a. Joe cleared Sam a place to sleep on the floor.

b.*Joe cleared Sam the floor.

Why is “b” incorrect?

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2 Answers 2

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When you write out sentence b) in its full form, it is perfectly clear.

Joe cleared the floor for Sam

It is grammatically possible to abbreviate a sentence like this by inverting the direct and indirect objects: when this is done, the preposition (to or for) is omitted. When we apply this inversion to the sentence, it gives us an uncomfortable feeling.

Joe cleared Sam the floor

At first, I thought that the problem may arise because the abbreviated sentence is difficult to parse: we perceive "Sam the floor" as a direct object, in the same style as "Thomas the tank engine", "Jake the peg" or "Mac the knife". The same issue does not arise when the article is "a" rather than "the", as is demonstrated in sentence a) and this sentence:

Joe cleared Sam a space.

As stangdon pointed out, it can work with the if you change the verb:

Joe gave Sam the floor.

This sentence is grammatically correct and does not sound wrong even if such an action is highly improbable.

There are two differences here. First, the verb: maybe give is more strongly ditransitive than clear. What's more likely, though, is the type of preposition that's used, and that to is a much stronger preposition than for.

This becomes clear when we take a sentence like

Joe held a party for Sam
Joe held Sam a party

The second sentence definitely gives us an uncomfortable feeling, even though we have a, which worked fine in the OP's first sentence.

There is a small group of dative words like give, tell, which have a to-indirect object seem to bind very strongly to that indirect object and inversion/abbreviation is usally possible. On the other hand, you can apply a for-indirect object to a much wider range of verbs, but the inversion/abbreviation does not always seem to be acceptable.

I agree with fumblefingers that there is no grammatical error in sentences that don't work: they simply don't sound right.

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  • A good observation. Also, it works differently for different verbs. "Joe gave Sam the table" works, but "Joe cleared Sam the table" doesn't.
    – stangdon
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 16:09
  • @stangdon: I don't think it's to do with the verb. I think it's a matter of how the indirect object (a place, or the floor) relates to the direct object (Sam). Will try to assemble that point into a proper Answer... Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 19:13
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It might be worth looking at the ELU question What's wrong with “I'll open you the door”?, where I'm slightly out on a limb, in that I don't entirely agree with what linguistics professor John Lawler says (it's ungrammatical because you won't wind up owning the door by virtue of my opening it).

But putting aside the fact that I personally don't always place such strict limits on this kind of ditransitive usage, I'm the same as every other native speaker as regards OP's examples here - the first is "natural"; the second is at the very least "unusual" ("unacceptable" to most people).

In both sentences, Joe is the subject, and Sam is the (indirect) object. In (a), the direct object is a place [to sleep on the floor] - which Sam does in fact end up "getting", so it's okay. But in (b), what Sam appears to be receiving is the floor, which most people would not find acceptable.


In short, I seem to be in a minority when I say things like this don't strike me as particularly ungrammatical...

a: Could you iron me these shirts?
b: Could you wash me the dishes?
c: Could you clean me the windows?
d. Could you open me the door?

Actually, I'm not in the minority as regards the first two above. Per my answer to the linked ELU question, a survey cited in Advances in Cognitive Sociolinguistics says (a) above is "acceptable" to 74% of respondents, and (b) is acceptable to 54%.


NOTE: I'm not saying I don't see any problems with OP's example (b). I don't like it much, but I don't find it totally unacceptable.

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  • Am I missing something here? Authorities like the Oxford Guide to English Grammar state that "When the verb has two objects, the first is the indirect object and the second is the direct object." That makes Sam the indirect object and the floor the direct object. You seem to be saying that it's the other way round.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 2:43
  • commons.cu-portland.edu/cgi/…
    – Raj 33
    Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 4:24
  • @JavaLatte: Ooops! Will edit to fix that. Commented Jan 26, 2018 at 13:26

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