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I would really appreciate it if someone could help me understand why the following sentence is grammatically incorrect:

A doll was made me by my sister.

The reason I think this sentence is incorrect is because of the following:

  1. I can’t piece together what this sentence means. I think this sentence means that the person’s sister made the doll into him, which is grammar-wise correct, but context-wise hard to understand.
  2. Doesn’t this sentence need a ‘for’ before ‘me’ in order to sound comprehensible?
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    These days it is an unusual way of expressing it. We would be more likely to say "A doll was made for me by my sister". It means the same as "my sister made me a doll" or "my sister made a doll for me".
    – Peter
    Sep 27, 2022 at 2:59
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    @Peter It's not just unusual; it's ungrammatical. It looks to me like one of those impossible passive-voice monstrosities that get hurled at non-native speakers trying to learn English.
    – tchrist
    Sep 27, 2022 at 3:21
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    I don't think 'a letter was sent me by the tax people' would cause the horses to bolt, or even shy, in my location. Sep 27, 2022 at 7:56
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    Graffiti alleged to have been seen on toilet wall in UK: "I was made a homosexual by my mother". Underneath, in a different hand: "If I sent her the wool, would she make me one?" Sep 27, 2022 at 8:55
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    This sounds a bit off to me, but there's as yet no evidence that it's ungrammatical. Certainly there are a lot of fiddly rules about pronoun placement, but I'd expect someone to have documented them in this case if it was widely believed to be ungrammatical.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 27, 2022 at 8:58

11 Answers 11

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For some reason, English allows you

  1. to turn a prepositional phrase (“My sister made a doll for me”) into an indirect object (“My sister made me a doll”), called a dative shift, or
  2. to turn an active-voice sentence into a passive-voice one (“A doll was made for me by my sister”)

but you cannot do both.

(Well, you can, but it will sounds clumsy and even confusing to a native speaker.)

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    I like this explanation. It is simple. But can you give a reference for "you cannot do both"? I seems to me you can, although the result is clumsy and hard to parse, which is the problem with the OP's sentence.
    – Wastrel
    Sep 27, 2022 at 16:12
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    Note that "made me a doll" can be ambiguous if your sister is a witch.
    – Barmar
    Sep 27, 2022 at 16:31
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    @Barmar — there was a famous graffiti exchange from 50 years ago, in the restroom of a gay bar: “My mother made me a homosexual”, wrote one person, to which someone else responded, “If I sent her some yarn, would she make one for me too?” Sep 27, 2022 at 16:34
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    @GregBurghardt It generally context and the following noun. "made me" can either mean "turned me into" or "made for me". And as the previous two comments demonstrate, in some cases it could be either.
    – Barmar
    Sep 27, 2022 at 17:05
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    See also: "I was made a doll by my sister" (direct object - my sister turned me into a doll by the use of black magic)
    – user253751
    Sep 27, 2022 at 21:15
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Syntactic restrictions on distransitive passivization:

Why you can be baked a cake yet a cake can never be baked you

Collins Dictionary notes, with formatting emphasis added by me:

If the indirect object is mentioned after the passive verb, the sentence must use “to”.

That's a tiny bit of an oversimplification, but their point is sound. See this post's bottom section for exceptions to this rule, and why they exist.

Under passive inversion of verbs with two objects, only the indirect object can ever be promoted to the subject if you leave the other object “unmarked” the way it had been in the original.

That's because an unmarked object following the passive participle always has to be the original's direct object, never the original's indirect object. So not marking it makes it look like something it never was. That’s why the original with “the doll was made you” is not considered grammatical in most dialects of present-day English.

In order to promote the direct object instead of the indirect object, you “always” have to use dative alternation to change the old indirect object into a mere prepositional phrase under passive inversion of verbs of two objects.


When you have a verb that takes two different objects, then under passive inversion you can only promote the first object (typically the beneficiary, sometimes called the indirect object) to the subject while leaving the second object unchanged.

If instead you promote the second object, then you always have to mark the remaining object. If you leave it unchanged, it doesn't make sense because the unmarked scenario means that it was the original direct object not the original indirect object.

The single-object verbs never cause a problem because you never leave any second object behind when inverting subject and object:

  1. Jane wrote the book. (another normal one-object verb)
  2. ✅ The book was written by Jane. (passive inversion of sentence 1, swapping subject and object)

But the two-object verbs have restrictions that depend on which of their two objects you promote to the subject:

  1. Jane gave Dick the book. (now a two-object verb)
  2. ✅ Dick was given the book by Jane.
    (passive inversion of the double-object sentence 3, promoting the original's indirect object to subject after inversion while leaving the original direct object unmarked in its same syntactic slot)
  3. ❌ The book was given ❌ Dick by Jane.
    (INVALID passive inversion of the double-object sentence 3, because the direct object was promoted to the subject but the indirect object was not suitably marked, and an unmarked noun-phrase in that syntactic position immediately after the participle will always be read as the direct object)
  4. ✅ The book was given ✅ to Dick by Jane.
    (passive inversion of the double-object sentence 3, promoting the direct object to subject and changing the original's indirect object into a prepositional phrase via dative alternation)

The problem with the original is that it promoted the direct object but left the indirect object or beneficiary unmarked, which makes it read wrong, just like in the ungrammatical sentence (5) above. The unmarked object left behind reads as having been the original's direct object. But it wasn't.

The solution is to mark the left-behind ‘beneficiary’ object using a preposition—instead of relying on word order to determine which object is which, a trick that only works when promoting the indirect object, not the direct one.


Are these prepositional passives?

No, this is not a case of a prepositional passive. A prepositional passive promotes the object of the preposition to the subject and strands the original preposition completely.

  1. The mouse ran up the clock.
  2. The clock was run up by the mouse.

  3. Goldilocks slept in my bed.
  4. My bed was slept in by Goldilocks.

A prepositional passive does not even require a transitive verb because there is no direct object involved at all here.

The original subject still becomes the object of a by X prepositional phrase, just as with other passives.


Exceptions: Alternate Markings, or None?

Contrary to Collins’s simplification, ditransitive passives do not strictly speaking always require the indirect object to be marked with to. There are two classes of exception to this.

Exception 1: Marking with for

Sometimes these instead use for instead of to, as in the original question. When you make a person a thing, the corresponding dative alternation into a prepositional phrase takes for the beneficiary rather than to.

Exception 2: No marking at all

The verb deny can be ditransitive, and it can also be passivized. When you deny a person a thing in this way, the OED notes that

In the passive either object may be made subject.

They provide this pair of citations with passives showing that both work. The first example promotes the indirect object and the second promotes the direct object:

  • a1616 W. Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 2 (1623)
    ɪ. iii. 107 Then let him be denay'd the Regent-ship.

  • 1814 I. D'Israeli Quarrels Auth. II. 277
    All the consolations of Fame were denied him during his life.

So why is there no to preposition needed in the Disraeli quote?

With ditransitive deny, which is a privative verb, the indirect object is not actually the action's “beneficiary” in the strict sense. This might be why these are all possible:

  1. The guard denied him entrance.
    (normal ditransitive use with indirect object and direct object)
  2. ✅ He was denied entrance (by the guard).
    (indirect object promoted to subject, with direct object left unmarked following the passive verb)
  3. ✅ Entrance was denied him (by the guard).
    (direct object promoted to subject, with indirect object left unmarked following the passive verb)

When there’s a beneficiary, though, you “can’t” have the indirect object after the passive verb without marking it with a preposition like to or for. Collins just oversimplifies the details for learners a little, that's all.

Exception 3: No passivization allowed

There are ditransitive verbs that won’t allow you to passivize them with either object. An example of this is when you elect a person to some position, like electing someone king. You can only passivize using the first of the two objects, not the second no matter whether you have to/for or not:

  1. The union elected Jack boss.
  2. ✅ Jack was elected boss by the union.
    (passivize via first object as subject)
  3. ❌ Boss was elected ❌ Jack by the union.
    (ungrammatical to passivize via second object as subject)
  4. ❌ Boss was elected ❌ to Jack by the union.
    (ungrammatical to passivize via second object as subject using to for dative alternation on the first object because it is not an indirect object or beneficiary here)

The reason you can’t passivize the second object is because no dative alternation to transform an indirect object into a prepositional phrase is possible with sentence (14):

  1. ❌ The union elected boss ❌to Jack.
    (failed attempt at dative alternation of sentence 14)
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    @DavidSiegel It's a basic rule of grammar per Collins Dictionary, which writes: If the indirect object is mentioned after the passive verb, the sentence must use to.
    – tchrist
    Sep 28, 2022 at 13:09
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    @tchrist I'd consider "A doll was given me by my sister" grammatical, if awkward. 'Give' is also ditransitive (e.g., "An award was given Mrs. Smith", which is an example that I've seen somewhere, but I can't find the source, and "An award was given Mrs. Smith by the committee" seems OK too). What's the category difference between "give" and "make" that makes on grammatical, but the other not? Sep 28, 2022 at 15:51
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    @JoshuaTaylor Collins Dictionary says your "An award was given Mrs. Smith" is ungrammatical for lack of to before the indirect object. You'll have to ask them why they've said this is a rule, but their perspective accords with my ear. There are unusual non-benefactive cases where dative alternation is impossible, so you can't passivize even using "to" because there is no real indirect object although there are two NPs: ❌ Boss was elected (to) him by the voters.
    – tchrist
    Sep 28, 2022 at 18:51
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    made used causatively is not make used non-causatively and passively. So simple, really. Now, the Brits do do things here we might not in AmE, to wit: An award was given Mrs. Smith. All you gotta do is pay attention to the Brit dramas on TV.
    – Lambie
    Sep 28, 2022 at 19:35
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    I think the point Lambie is making... is that the verb phrase [you/he/she/they] made [me / you / him] etc. … should be reserved for causative constructions.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 29, 2022 at 21:51
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The original sentence in its active form would be:

My sister made me a doll.

Here, the verb "made" has two objects: 1) me and 2) a doll.

Some objects have priority in order over other objects i.e. they must come before some other objects in the sentence. "Me" is one of those objects that has the highest priority of order (in this sentence, not necessarily always).

Typically, objects that could be connected to the verb with the prepositions "for" or "to" have highest priority. But, the only sure way to know is practice.

So, the sentence cannot be:

My sister made a doll me.

This carries over to passive form. The passive form only means that one of its objects becomes its subject. If a high priority object exists in the sentence, it must be the one that becomes the subject.

So, it would be correct to say:

I was made a doll by my sister.

**Note: "I" is the subject form of "me".

But, it would not be correct to say:

A doll was made me by my sister.

It is not correct because it puts the "me" after "a doll" even though "me" which is connected by "for" should have priority.

However, the above sentence could be correct if you mean your sister created you for a doll! Basically, if you put the doll first, the listener might think the doll is the one being made "for".

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    Consider the sentences "Bob served some fish", "Bob served the cat", and "Bob served the cat some fish". Now consider the meaning of "The cat was served some fish" and "Some fish were served the cat". Both of the latter two sentences are equally grammatical, but probably not equally semantically appropriate (poor kitty!). I think the problem with "A doll was made me" is actually not grammatical, but rather semantic.
    – supercat
    Sep 27, 2022 at 23:00
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    Note that “I was made a doll” could also be read as saying that the speaker was turned into a doll, although usually this would be ruled out by context.
    – Davislor
    Sep 28, 2022 at 5:56
  • @Davislor That is true for the active form as well. "My sister made me a doll" could also be read like that. The verb 'made' is acting a bit differently in that interpretation.
    – The Z
    Sep 28, 2022 at 14:05
  • @TheZ The difference is that when you make some first thing some second thing, like making George Washington the first president, the first thing does not receive the second thing, so it is not a benefactive construction, but rather a resultative one: George is not the recipient of the first president. You have not not made the first president for him, as you do when you make him a cake. That's because now George actually receives the cake. You've transferred its ownership. The cake was made for him in the passive.
    – tchrist
    Sep 28, 2022 at 15:20
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There are two different issues here: (I) active/passive voice; and (II) prepositions/personal pronouns.

I. Active/Passive Voice:

A doll was made by my sister. (passive voice)

My sister made a doll. (active voice)

In general, active voice is preferred over passive voice. Passive voice tends to be unnecessarily wordy and sometimes confusing. It's hard for anyone to say that the passive voice sounds better in the above example. Another classic example:

The road was crossed by the chicken. (passive)

The chicken crossed the road. (active)

The active voice is more concise and clear, and this is generally the case.

There are a few instances where passive voice might be preferred:

  1. In scientific reports to avoid excessive use of the first person:

The experiment was carried out using.....

  1. When you don't know who performed the action so you can't write in the active voice:

The package was sent yesterday.

Their house was robbed last week.

  1. When the person doing the action is largely unimportant:

He was sworn in yesterday.

II. Prepositions and Personal Pronouns

She made a doll for me.

She made me a doll.

You cannot say:

She made a doll me (incorrect)

You need to use a preposition:

She made a doll for me.

However, when the direct object of a verb is a personal pronoun, and the personal pronoun directly follows the verb, you eliminate the preposition:

She made me a doll.

Another example:

He threw the ball to her.

He threw her the ball.

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    You haven't explained why there is a preposition between the verb (made) and the object pronoun (me) in the passive voice but why it's missing in the active voice. But is it always unnecessary/missing? What about "My sister made a doll for me”? By the same token why not "*My sister made for me a doll”?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 27, 2022 at 21:18
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    Why is it better to use the active? There's nothing wrong with passive sentences. Sep 28, 2022 at 5:46
  • I revised my answer. Sep 28, 2022 at 19:40
  • @Mari-LouA: The phraseology "My sister made for me a doll" would be unusual, but could be appropriate in cases where the sentence might otherwise be interpreted as meaning "My sister made me into a doll".
    – supercat
    Sep 29, 2022 at 21:41
  • @supercat The other reading is nonsensical based upon this evidence.
    – tchrist
    Sep 30, 2022 at 0:46
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You must use a preposition for it to make sense. (A doll was made for me, by my sister.) alternatively you could say. (My sister made me a doll.) no preposition required.

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You Can.

It will even be technically correct. But it will sound wrong, even to experienced speakers, and you are likely to have trouble being understood.

At best, this would be analogous to Yoda-speak.

If I saw this absent context, I would assume it was ether archaic or poor English, with the grammar structure suggesting a Nordic speaker.

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In the active voice, the subject is the doer of the action, the first object, if there are two, after the verb is the indirect object (receiver of the action) and the second is the direct object. If there is only one object it is the direct object. My sister made me a doll. My sister made a doll. In the passive voice, the receiver of the action is in the subject position and the doer of the action is identified after the word by. A doll was made for my by my sister. In your case there is only one object after the verb. Normally in the active voice, that would be the direct object. My sister made a doll. But here you want to say that because the direct object is the subject that the first object after the verb is now the indirect object. Sounds OK to many people, but it does seem to be a different set of rules instead of a translation of active voice rules to passive-voice because instead of identifying the only object after the verb as the direct object, you are identifying it as the indirect object.

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Although (most of) the other answers are correct that the sentence is ungrammatical, none of them are answering the OP's question of "Why can't you say [it]?"

When the sentence "A doll was made me by my sister." is (attempted to be) parsed, the resulting link grammar diagram could be:

                        +---Js----+
+-Ds-+-Ss-+-Pvf-+--MVp--+  +--Ds--+
|    |    |     |       |  |      |
A doll  was  made [me] by my sister.

This shows that "me" has no grammatical linkage, or has a null grammatical linkage.

The grammatically correct sentence with the least modification to the words and probably least modification to intended the meaning is "A doll was made for me by my sister." which has the diagram:

                +-----MVp----+---Js----+
+-Ds-+-Ss-+-Pvf-+-MVp-+-J-+  |  +--Ds--+
|    |    |     |     |   |  |  |      |
A doll  was  made   for  me by my sister.

I believe the OP might be attempting use "made" as a reflexive verb in a way (Modern) English does not allow.

Grammar Links Used

  • Ds connects determiners to singular nouns.
  • J connects prepositions to their objects.
  • Js connects prepositions to their singular objects.
  • MVp connects prepositions to verbs.
  • Pvf connects forms of "be" to passive participles with a filler.
  • Ss connects singular subject-nouns to finite verbs.
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    Hm. But "my sister made me a doll" is fine. Why is this sentence (rather unusually) impossible to put in the passive voice?
    – Casey
    Sep 27, 2022 at 23:06
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    @Casey Because you can't strand the beneficiary without marking it; otherwise it looks like a direct object, which makes no sense. You can be made a doll but a doll can't be made you.
    – tchrist
    Sep 27, 2022 at 23:23
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    Would a downvoter care to explain how my link grammar diagrams are not useful?
    – MarkMYoung
    Sep 28, 2022 at 14:02
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To respond in a rather more simple and limited way : The meaning is ambiguous. "A doll was made me by my sister" could either mean :

  • "A doll was made into me by my sister"
  • "A doll was made for me by my sister"

That is, as others have pointed out, because of the mixture of active and passive voices : We don't know if the phrase is supposed to contain "My sister made me a doll" or "My sister made a doll me" because they are both equally plausible from the original sentence.

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  • The assertion that we don't know "which" was meant is false. We certainly do know which was meant. Never before has the thing you pretend to not know from the other been written. Language isn't math. We learn from patterning. This other pattern has never, ever been used. There can be no confusion, no ambiguity. The real world proves this.
    – tchrist
    Sep 30, 2022 at 0:41
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The sentence

A doll was made me by my sister.

is awkward, but not ungrammatical. However, it does not mean that my sister made a doll for me. Consider this sentence of the same form:

George was made a general by Congress.

It means that Congress caused George to be a general -- that is, they promoted or appointed him to that rank. More generally, "X was made Y" means some agent, force, or circumstance caused X to be(come) a thing describable as Y.

If we accept the original sentence as correct, then it is spoken from the perspective of someone or something who was once a doll, and whose sister -- perhaps a figurative sister -- caused them to become whatever they are now. That could be metaphorical or whimsical, or in certain contexts it could even be literal. In a context where that didn't make some kind of sense, however, the likely conclusion would be that the sentence was misconstructed.

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    It's never been said.
    – tchrist
    Sep 30, 2022 at 0:45
  • I'm not surprised, @tchrist. It would be a very odd thing to say, and it is awkward to boot -- both already expressed in this answer. Nevertheless, I can imagine literary contexts where it could be used. In any event, that doesn't change what it would mean if it were said, nor does it make such an utterance ungrammatical. Sep 30, 2022 at 3:36
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causative make (like the verb let): He made me do it. She made me play the piano.

I was made to play the piano by her. BUT NOT: I was made me play the piano.

make as a transitive verb that can be made passive:

I made the cake. = The cake was made by me. My sister made a doll for me = A doll was made by my sister for me.

That is the simplest answer.

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  • I wish downvoters would take it easy. This is completely correct but it is not a super-specialized answer. I don't think learners require very lengthy answers for simple points.
    – Lambie
    Sep 29, 2022 at 19:33

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