I think "Tom played Mary a joke." is not natural and "Tom played a joke on Mary." is natural. What is your opinion?

  • Welcome to EL&U. Without knowing what you intend to say, we cannot help you except by guessing. Please edit your post to state explicitly in other words the scenario you are trying to describe. Both Tom played Mary a joke and Tom played a joke on Mary are acceptable English, but they mean very different things.
    – choster
    Dec 4, 2018 at 1:51

4 Answers 4


OP is quite right that native speakers normally avoid the "ditransitive" construction (direct and indirect object, no preposition) with play [a joke]. Google Books has just 2 written instances of (She) played him a joke. We much prefer the "monotransitive" version of that, with an explicitly-specified preposition (there are 2220 hits for ...played a joke on him).

But I should point out that Google Books has 5450 hits for the ditransitive (She) played him a trick, which is almost as common as monotransitive ...played a trick on him (5920 hits).

Some native speakers (mainly Americans) will feel a bit uneasy about the ditransitive usage with trick - it really depends on whether they draw a parallel with the non-idiomatic play (him) a trick or the perfectly natural play (him) a song.

To the extent that there's any "logic" involved here - as opposed to a totally meaningless choice based purely on what one hears other people say (a matter of "idiomatically established" usage) - I think the difference turns on the nature of the relationship between the indirect object (him) and the direct object (joke, song).

If we do include a preposition with song, we can choose between to and for. But we can't use on, because that doesn't work with a "Benefactive object" (him, where he gets the "benefit" of hearing the song).

The link in that previous sentence is to a closely-related ELU question, where professor of linguistics John Lawler asserts that the prepositionless ditransitive form is only appropriate in "benefactive" contexts where the indirect object (the "beneficiary") ends up possessing the direct object (which he doesn't with door, joke). So according to him, Please open the door for me cannot validly be transformed into Please open me the door. But if you follow that link, you'll see that not everyone agrees on this point - in particular, BrE speakers (such as myself) are more relaxed about such usages than AmE speakers.

I'm not really an expert on using mathematical expressions in Google NGrams, but I think if you compare this AmE chart and this BrE chart (for relative prevalence of played a trick on him and played him a trick), what it shows is that the ditransitive form is twice as likely in BrE.

TL;DR - The ditransive (prepositionless) form is fine with play + song, but not with play + joke. But things aren't so clear-cut with ditransitive play + trick (which is more likely to be acceptable in BrE than in AmE), so if you want to play safe you should probably think in terms of including the preposition in any context where you're not sure.

EDIT: Reflecting comments made below, I should point out that the specific ditransitive usage play [someone] a trick has massively declined in popularity since the 1800s. So it would usually be seen today as a "dated" usage - another good reason to avoid it if you're not a native speaker who's well aware of such implications.

  • 2
    Worth noting: A good number of those "played him a trick" hits were penned in the 1800s.
    – J.R.
    Nov 30, 2018 at 15:34
  • @J.R.: You're quite right. As I said, I'm no expert on using mathematical expressions in Google NGrams - but I also think that both the AmE and BrE charts are indicating "near-parity" between ditransitive & "monotransitive + preposition" until about the start of C20. I was going to mention that played him a trick sounded more than a little "dated" even to my BrE ear, but I thought the answer was already getting a bit too long. And the truth is I couldn't easily square that with my "Brits are more accommodating / less dogmatic" sideswipe anyway, so I just left it out! :( Nov 30, 2018 at 16:49
  • ...I could also have "digressed" into looking at what I consider to be the perfectly idiomatic ditransitive usage to play (someone) a blinder.. Not common among AmE speakers, I think, but it's natural enough in colloquial BrE with the sense of defeat / trick someone by successfully executing a deceptive/cunning plan. Again though, the "recipient" doesn't end up "possessing" the direct object (the "blindingly impressive" ploy) - as with trick, he ends up being subjected to it (as a victim, not a beneficiary). Nov 30, 2018 at 17:02
  • 1
    Speaking of NGrams, here's a graph showing that "played him a trick" was more common before World War II and "played a trick on him" has been more common since then. Nov 30, 2018 at 23:29
  • Played him a trick might be referring to hand in the card game Bridge.
    – jmoreno
    Dec 1, 2018 at 1:34

You are correct. The following is not a natural way of saying that he played a joke on Mary.

Tom played Mary a joke.

As a native speaker, the instant I saw the title I thought, "What equipment did he use to play the joke on? His mobile phone maybe?"

If you play [person] a [thing] it means that you performed something, like a tune or a video.


Tom played Mary a tune. (He took out a musical instrument and played a tune for Mary)

Tom played Mary a joke. (He went onto Youtube and found someone telling jokes. He played the joke being told on that video for Mary)

  • One of the many examples where both sentences are correct, but one means something different than expected and is therefore rarely used. That's why counting how often a phrase is used doesn't tell you if it's right or wrong, only whether it is used often or not.
    – gnasher729
    Dec 1, 2018 at 11:48

I agree with you. In fact when I was reading the question I also thought that Tom played a joke on Mary was more natural even before I read that in your question.

  • I wonder you are sure "Tom played Mary a joke." is grammatically correct and used even though it is used infrequently.And how about Tom played a joke to Mary?
    – Fellix
    Nov 30, 2018 at 12:46
  • @Fellix No, it's not correct. "Send", "give", "write" can do that -- "Tom gave Mary a gift" -- but not "play". Nov 30, 2018 at 12:52
  • 3
    @LukeS - I agree that "Tom played Mary a joke" sounds off, but disagree with your assertion that "play" cannot be used that way. Tom played Mary a song.
    – J.R.
    Nov 30, 2018 at 15:32
  • 2
    @J.R. Quite right. It's unusual on its own, but perfectly fine in context. What if somebody plays a YouTube video of a comedian telling a joke? I played her a joke while we waited for our food. Nov 30, 2018 at 15:48
  • 1
    You guys are right (in fact the list is open since at least part of it is based on verb structure). I overgeneralized. But yeah, this case is odd. Nov 30, 2018 at 16:06

You could naturally say 'Tom told Mary a joke' which, although different in meaning, is constructed the same way, and it is entirely natural.

  • Please stick to what the OP asked and please don’t change the meaning. Thanks
    – user109564
    Dec 1, 2018 at 13:20

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