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Here are two sentences where the direct object and indirect object is obvious for each, but then when I change the sentences to have the same meaning, questions come up:


He gave me a shirt.

I understand that:

  • "shirt" is the direct object. (ie, the thing given)
  • "me" is the indirect object (or more precisely, the dative object). (ie, the recipient)

He bought me a shirt.

Similarly, "me" is the indirect object, and "shirt" is the direct object.


It's curious when I try to change the forms of the above:

He gave me a shirt.
He gave a shirt to me.

Question #1: is "to me" still considered to be an indirect object?

He bought me a shirt.
He bought a shirt for me.
? He bought a shirt to me.

Question #2: Why does "He bought a shirt for me" seem ambiguous?

(that is, it could mean "He bought me a shirt" (ie, I'm the recipient of that shirt, and that shirt is now my own property), or it could mean "I needed that shirt but I was too busy to buy it, so he bought that shirt on my behalf".)

Does the preposition "for" often create ambigugous meanings?

Question #3: Why is "He bought a shirt to me" incorrect, but "He gave a shirt to me" correct?

I wish there was a simple rule about taking the dative object ("me" in this case) out of its usual position, and that you were allowed to put it at the end ("... to me").

Is English usually more regular, or this inconsistency common? Is there a hidden reason that explains this inconsistency?

  • AFAIK, "to me" is not the object, but "me" is. #2 that's why context is everything! #3 give licenses "to", bought (buy) doesn't. (As a learner though) – Cardinal Apr 26 at 4:31
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    I believe "to me" and "for me" become adverbial phrases that modify the verb "give", rather than indirect objects, but the only people who really care about such things are English teachers and professional linguists. As for your question #3, the answer is "because". Unfortunately you have to memorize common English verb-preposition collocations, for example "bought to" is not idiomatic, but "bought for" is. – Andrew Apr 26 at 6:27
  • Preliminary point: English does not have a 'dative' case. "He bought a shirt to me" is ungrammatical -- "for" is required with the verb "bought". Note also that PPs like "for/to me" cannot be indirect objects, though they are complements of the verb. In "He bought a shirt for me", whatever the reason for him buying it, "me" is still the recipient. The Oi of a verb is normally the recipient of the Od. – BillJ Apr 26 at 7:03
  • @BillJ : To your last sentence: "Little Johnny needs a shirt for photo day tomorrow morning, and is asking me to buy him a shirt, but I'm too busy to get one. Could you run to the store and buy a shirt for me?". In this case, Little Johnny is going to be the recipient of the shirt, no? – silph Apr 26 at 10:54
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    English is often this inconsistent and more so. The reasons lie partly in its complex history, and absorption of both vocabulary and grammer from multiple sources, and partly from the resistance of English speakers to rigid rules, and particularly in modern English, the freedom to use a word in multiple different grammatical roles. We verb nouns, substantiate verbs, use nouns as adjectives and adverbs, and omit parts of speech quite freely. This often means there are many ways to express a thought, often with subtle differences or none, and some are favored by accident of history. – David Siegel Apr 26 at 20:22
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You should see this article which notes that all indirect objects are prepositional phrases with the preposition itself understood and not included.

He gave me a shirt.

He gave to me a shirt.


He bought me a shirt.

He bought for me a shirt.


The other forms you propose are simply moving the location of the prepositional phrase in the sentence. However, at least according to this link, once an indirect object is rephrased as a prepositional phrase, it no longer qualifies as an indirect object. Therefore:

Question #1: No, "to me" is not the indirect object, because "to me" is a prepositional phrase. The word "me" is used as the Object of the Preposition, not as the Indirect Object of the Verb.

Question #2: The preposition "for" is often left out as it is understood. When it is deliberately written or spoken, it provides additional possible context. As you noted, there are a lot of reasons why someone might do anything "for" someone else, which introduces the ambiguity you refer to. Context of the conversation usually reduces or eliminates the ambiguity.

Question #3: There are specific verb-preposition combinations, which you can see examples of at this link. The reason behind each one would either delve deeply into the meaning and usage of both the verb and the preposition, or sadly simply result in "because it's just used that way".

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    especially illuminating was your answer to my Question #2: that deliberately making the "for me" explicit can imply additional information. – silph Apr 26 at 22:00

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