1. He described the situation to me. correct

  2. He described me the situation. wrong

The second sentence is said to be wrong with the reason that describe cannot take two objects.

If that is so then why does the first sentence contain two objects namely situation and me?

  • I think that if you didn't leave out the to it would seem to be grammatically correct. He described me_ to_ the situation. This though would not make sense, would be illogical. Correct me if I'm wrong.
    – CipherBot
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 12:38
  • In formal descriptions of English we distinguish between a syntactic "object", which must be in nominal form, and the thematic role "Beneficiary", which may be expressed either as an "object" (me) or as a preposition phrase "complement" (to me). Some verbs (give, send, tell) permit a Beneficiary to be expressed as an object, others (describe, say) do not. Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 14:43
  • "He described to me the situation" would be grammatically correct and although not most people's first choice, would seem perfectly natural.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 15:32
  • Some verbs, such as tell, give, teach are ditransitive, so He told me the situation, He gave me the information, He taught me the facts are all fine. Other verbs, such as describe,explain are not ditransitive in standard English, so the "recipient / patient" (me in these examples) needs to be introduced by an appropriate preposition - usually to. And idiomatically we usually put the prepositionless object first, as in OP's first version. Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 17:21

4 Answers 4


I would only consider option 1 to be standard usage. Certain verbs take both a direct (in your example, "the situation") and indirect ("me") object, and are known as "ditransitive". Other examples of ditransitive verb use would include:

They played us a selection of their greatest hits.

He brought me an apple.

Tell her all about it.

In the case of "describe", I've only ever heard it used in a monotransitive sense (it only takes a direct object, not an indirect object). This is similar to "explain" (see e.g. https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/51542/which-one-is-correct-explain-me-or-explain-to-me) - the indirect object in these sentences is generally given in a prepositional phrase:

He explained his theory to them.

Describe the situation to me.

And the examples above can also generally be re-cast into this alternative structure:

He brought an apple to me.

Unfortunately, though, I've not managed to find any concrete list of verbs that are used purely monotransitively.

  • One reason you won't easily "find any concrete list of verbs that are used purely monotransitively" is that there's no absolute consensus. For example, I personally have absolutely no problem with Can you open me the door please?, but most votes on this ELU question agree with John Lawler's answer there saying it's ungrammatical because you won't wind up owning the door by virtue of my opening it.. Which may be a US/UK usage split, I dunno. Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 17:29
  • @FumbleFingers "Can you open me the door" does indeed sound quite strange to me - though "cash me a cheque" and "iron me these shirts" doesn't sound inherently wrong (if a little colloquial). And I don't think it's some UK/US split like you say in your answer, as I'm also a Brit. My guess is that part of the confusion comes from English speakers not being as strongly aware of the dative case as, say, German (as we have no separation between accusative and dative in our pronouns, whereas German splits "mich" and "mir", lessening the chance for ambiguity)
    – Jez W
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 19:33
  • I'd have thought those Google Books figures showing the difference in prevalence between cash me a cheque / cash a cheque for me and the corresponding AmE versions with check would convince anybody that there's a significant US/UK usage split. I'm quite sure that particular spelling difference is a far more accurate indication of the writer's nationality than Google's division into British/ American corpuses. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 13:39
  • @FumbleFingers The point I was making is that in that other thread you say "As a Brit, I have no problem with 'open me the door'." Whereas I say, also as a Brit, that "open me the door" sounds incredibly odd to me. So while certain phrases might have more prevalence on one side of the Atlantic than the other, that's not the only effect at play. (In fact I have no idea where you're getting your Google Books numbers from - using the exact links you posted, "cash me a cheque" gives me 155 results, and "cash a cheque for me" 318, making that the more common one after all)
    – Jez W
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 13:55
  • The numbers returned by Google Books have changed somewhat since I posted the links three years ago, but it's not really important whether the monotransitive version is actually also more common than the ditransitive one in BrE. The current numbers show ditransitive as making up less than 7% of all AmE instances, compared to almost one third of all BrE instances, which is still a significant difference. I doubt it's anything to do with German syntax though - I think "formal" AmE as taught in schools is just more conservative in respect of ongoing changes in English syntax. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 14:54

Verbs set up slots (spaces) for other phrases. The phrases that fill these slots are called Complements. An Object is a special type of Complement. Usually, but not always, an Object is a noun phrase:

  • They described [the situation].

A typical Object of an active voice sentence can become the Subject of a Passive one:

  • [The situation] was described.

Some verbs take preposition phrases as Complements. These are almost never Objects. One way to show this is that they cannot become the Subjects of passive sentences:

  • I spoke [to him].
  • [To him] was spoken. (ungrammatical)

The preposition phrase to him, of course, is a Complement, but it isn't an Object. This is why it can't be the Subject of the passive sentence above.

The Original Poster's example

He described the situation to me.

In the sentence above the verb described is taking two complements. The noun phrase the situation is a Direct Object, the preposition phrase to me is not. Consider the following passive sentences:

  • [The situation] was described to me.
  • *[To me] was described the situation. (ungrammatical)

Is the sentence He described me the situation wrong? Probably. It is a bit marginal. Nowadays DESCRIBE does not use this type of grammar in standard English.


Only consider option one to be standard usage. Certain verbs take both a direct (in your example, "the situation") and indirect ("me") object, and are known as "ditransitive".


In the first example

He described the situation to me

"He" is only describing one object - the situation. He is describing that one object to you. Meaning you are the person who is hearing the description. The verb phrase can be condensed to the following, showing that there is only one object:

He described the situation

He is not describing you

In the second example

He described me the situation

This makes no sense because again, he is not describing you.

Your sentence should actually probably be something like the following

He described to me the situation

This is akin to the first sentence: "He" is describing something to you, and that something (the object) is the situation.

However someone can describe two objects (highlighted):

He described to me both the situation and the location of the objects I have to find

Or a simpler example (note that I've added [the] for context, but it is not needed in this example)

He described the car and [the] driver

  • I think your "rationale" here is completely wrong. Neither the situation nor me are "subjects" - they're just two different types of object, which as Wikipedia says may be called direct and indirect, or primary and secondary. It just so happens describe is monotransitive, so if an indirect object such as me is involved, it requires a preposition. Which doesn't apply with truly ditransitive verbs such as He told me the score, He gave me the information, He handed me the details etc. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 14:32
  • They're objects which are the subject of being described. I think you're over-thinking it a little. The real question is 'can two things be described in one sentence' the rest is pedantry
    – Jon Story
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 14:41
  • I'm not "overthinking" anything - I've offered no rationale as to why some words are monotransitive where others (which even may be semantically equivalent) allow ditransitive use. I'm simply pointing out that your rationale doesn't stand up - in OP's example, the situation is still the "direct" object regardless of whether the verb is describe or tell, so it never requires a preposition. The need for a preposition before the "indirect" object me used with monotransitive verbs is a matter of idiomatically established syntax (not "semantics", as implied by your answer) Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 15:05
  • To which my response is "Who cares?" - I'll change subject to object in the answer, and the point remains that someone can describe two objects, and that the issue in the original question was a lack of "the" rather than because one cannot describe two objects..
    – Jon Story
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 15:27
  • We seem not to be on the same page here. It's not really important whether you've mixed up syntactic subjects and objects. What I'm concerned about is that your answer incorrectly asserts that there's some semantic reason why me requires a preposition in He described to me what he had seen. Which makes no sense when we consider that it's perfectly okay to say He told me me what he had seen - effectively the same meaning, but different verbs, different syntax. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 15:38

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