Swiss-German has dative and accusative case-marking for its objects.

In the sentence "I gave him the book," "him" must be marked as dative and "the book" must be marked as accusative. It's clear that "him" is the indirect object since you can rewrite the sentence as "I gave to him the book."

But the verb "help" requires it's subject to have a dative case, which semantically makes sense since the object is the beneficiary of the action in the sentence. But syntactically, it seems to be of a different flavor, one which I don't understand with my rudimentary knowledge of generative syntax.

First of all, you can't rewrite "I helped Hans build the house" using "helped to Hans." Second, it looks like "help" is taking an independent clause as an argument with no explicit or even implicit complementizer, but the fact that "Hans" is marked (in Swiss German: "em Hans") makes it seem as though it is just taking "Hans" as an argument. Is there any discussion in generative syntax or elsewhere about this? Do you know of any references that might help me answer similar questions?

By the way, if you couldn't already tell, I started thinking about this because of this paper: http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/shieber/Biblio/Papers/shieber85.pdf

  • In English, the construction has been reanalyzed and is now considered a small phrase (with bare infinitive). It's similar to "let us...". The pronoun is now considered the agent ("subject") of the complement of "help". For this reason one can't say "I helped to him".
    – Atamiri
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 15:56
  • Are you asking about English or Swiss German? Please make that much clearer. Stand alone examples would help.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 13:06
  • 2
    the verb "help" requires it's subject to have a dative case -- I think you meant "its object".
    – TKR
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 18:27

2 Answers 2


I think you are confusing English with German. In German (not just Swiss German, but all dialects, and standard German too) the verb helfen governs the dative case. In Old English helpen was similarly construed with the dative or genitive, but in modern English the historic dative and accusative have merged into a single case, generally called objective, illustrated by pronouns like me, him, her, us, them, whom. There is now no morphological distinction between a dative and an accusative case, but there is a syntactical distinction between a direct and an indirect object; this expresses itself in the fact that the indirect object can be paraphrased with the preposition “to”, while the direct object cannot, and also by word order. Thus we say “I gave him the book” or “I gave the book to him”, but we do not use “to” with a direct object. Similarly, we say “I helped him cook” but not “*I helped cook to him”. So why do you want to classify the object of “help” as dative?

  • But PendingVegan was clearly talking about the corresponding Swiss German sentence and about trouble finding out why the object of help should have the same case as the object of give.
    – user9315
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 10:43

There is the distinction between predictable dative and idiosyncratic dative, predictable dative being, for example, the dative in ditransitive constructions like "Ich gebe dem Hans das Buch" (I give the book to Hans) is predictable and the Dative in "Ich helfe dem Hans ein Haus zu bauen" (I help Hans to build a house) is idiosyncratic, i.e. somewhat irregularly assigned, even though Datives like this seem often to correspond to certain Theta roles (e.g. Experiencer or Benefactor, as opposed to Patient). I can refer you to this if you want to read up on the assignment of Datives.

Structurally, "Ich helfe dem Hans ein Haus zu bauen" ('I help the.DAT Hans a house to build') is an instance of raising or control, and 'ein Haus zu bauen' is an argument of 'helfe'. There even is a "complementizer", 'zu', although I think it is the head of T rather than C.

  • 1
    I suspect that "irregularly assigned" means nothing more than "unexpected for monolingual speakers of English". In German helfen + dative is regularly assigned, and the word for "help" takes the dative in many other IE languages (e.g. Latin adsum).
    – fdb
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 12:48
  • That doesn't have anything to do with whether you are a monolingual speaker of English or not. The word for "help" also takes the accusative in other IE languages (e.g. Latin adiuvo), so you have no real way of predicting whether it takes Dative or not. German "unterstützen" (to support) takes the Accusative case, German "beistehen" (to support) takes the Dative case. There is no way to predict which case will be used, even if you can make an educated guess. On the other hand, you'd be surprised if a language with a dative case didn't use it for ditransitive constructions like 'give'.
    – user9315
    Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 19:52
  • Get ready for a surprise. The Arabic word for "I give" (ʼuʻṭī) is construed with two direct objects, both in the accusative case.
    – fdb
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 17:40

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