There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil. She would have been exorcised to cast out the evil spirit, and if after many trials that did not work, she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community. The one thing that may not be forgiven a witch is her ability to distress people, to make them restless and uneasy and even envious.

(John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

There’s a passive voice followed by a noun phrase, a witch, in the sentence. The sentence needs to be ‘the one thing that may not be forgiven for a witch~’ or ‘the one thing that a witch may not be forgiven.’ Then why is the noun phrase in the middle of the sentence?

  • 1
    This is an older style of sentence structure. What it means is "The one thing that a witch may not be forgiven" (ie. if a witch does X, she will not be forgiven for it). It sounds old-fashioned, but it is definitely an understandable structure. I'm not sure how to explain exactly why it's correct in grammatical terms, so I'll leave that to someone else to answer!
    – WendiKidd
    Jun 1, 2013 at 14:03

1 Answer 1


As WendiKidd comments, it's really something of an older style of sentence structure. Today we'd be more likely to include the preposition in...

The one thing that may not be forgiven in a witch is [blah blah].

Learners might find it simpler if we revert to the more standard Subject-Verb-Object sequence...

[blah blah] is the one thing that may not be forgiven in a witch.

Prepositions are very important in English, since word-order is often flexible (witness the above reversal), and we don't have many inflections to indicate what grammatical role a word has in an utterance. But the language is constantly evolving, so it often turns out that the preferred preposition (or omission thereof) changes over decades and centuries.

Another related example with forgive is...

[His wife] forgave him his infidelity
which today might more often be expressed as
[His wife] forgave him for his infidelity

As you can see, the verb to forgive can be used with either or both of two different types of "object" (the sin, and the sinner)...

[He was very rude, but]...
I forgave him.
I forgave his rudeness. (syntactically, the rudeness; his is just a kind of determiner here)
I forgave him his rudeness.
I forgave him for his rudeness.
*I forgave his rudeness him.

As is normal in such ditransitive constructions, if one of the two objects is a beneficiary or target of the action, that usually has to come before the other ("direct") object unless there's a standard preposition usage that makes the interrelationships clear. My final example above is "invalid" as it stands, and I'm not sure there actually is a way to make the sequence valid by using a preposition.

  • 1
    +1 The very simple (but OffTopically historical) answer is that forgive is a prefixed give and worked just like that word (And forgyf us ura gyltas, "and forgive us our sins", ca. 1000) for three and a half centuries before the alternate use arose, with the person rather than the debt/guilt/sin as direct object. Jun 6, 2013 at 22:03
  • @StoneyB: Useful bit of background - though language is a bit like investments, in that past performance isn't a reliable indicator of the future. My own feeling is that Bibles of the future (if not some already) will render your example as "forgive us for our sins", since it seems to me on average preposition usages are on the increase in English. Jun 6, 2013 at 23:34
  • Or simply forgive our sins ... who else is He going to forgive for them? Jun 7, 2013 at 0:03
  • 1
    @StoneyB: "Oh Lord, forgive my wicked stepmother for the sins which I only committed because she beat me and turned me to the bad." Jun 7, 2013 at 0:19

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