The context for this question is that I am preparing an introductory grammar course to be taught to adult Papua New Guineans from different language groups who have varying levels of secondary school education. Actually, I am revising existing materials for the course and I am troubled by the confusing picture the materials paint about transitivity and the very limited examples of ditransitive verbs that are given.

I tried consulting Wikipedia but the Ditransitive Verb page leaves much to be desired. I have consulted various text books and they are not entirely clear on this matter either.

It seems that a common definition of ditransitive verbs only includes those which can use dative shift to allow for two bare NPs as objects of the verb. This limited list includes, of course, give, and also verbs like tell (someone a story), show (someone a picture). Even verbs like bake (someone a cake), and read (someone a book), are included even though the beneficiaries of the reading and baking seem only loosely connected, semantically. In English this 'restricted definition' of ditransitive verbs seems to only allow recipients and in some cases beneficiaries.

But why such a restricted list? In my thinking, if the verb needs three arguments to feel complete, then it should count as a ditransitive (trivalent) verb. Why are verbs that take PPs, gerunds, infinitive phrases, adjectives, complement clauses, quoted speech, etc. as arguments excluded? Here are some examples:

  1. She put the keys in the drawer. (*She put the keys.)
  2. The guards prevented the man from escaping. (*The guards prevented the man.)
  3. That makes me uncomfortable. (*That makes me. — an adjective is not a typical object.)
  4. The judge sentenced Billy to 2 years in prison.
  5. Bob drove the truck to Arizona. (Both "the truck" and "to Arizona" are omittable, but still)
  6. Momma told me not to come. (Again, just "Momma told me" is grammatical, but the infinitive phrase seems to be very much an argument of tell.)
  7. He told us "This is the way." (A variant of #6.)
  8. He told us (that) this is the way. (A variant of #7.)
  9. I bet Dave $50 that the Cubs would win. (actually tritransitive)

I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Each of the verbs takes three arguments. Either it is ungrammatical to remove any of the arguments, or they just seem to be too closely associated to the verb, according to my intuition, not to be called an argument. This issue also applies to (what I would call) transitive verbs which don't take a prototypical object, such as say [quote or complement clause], go [PP goal], seem [adjective], know [complement/WH clause], and enjoy [gerund phrase].

I know what an adjunct is. These verbs in question are different from something like "I work out [at the gym on third street, on Mondays and Fridays, from 7 to 9]". Work out is an intransitive verb and everything in the square brackets there is peripheral information.

I am prepared to accept that some transitivity is more transitive than other transitivity. I can see how you could have various tests for transitivity or "true argument status" and some verbs/arguments might pass all the tests while others only partially do. For example, allowing dative shift and allowing the argument to be the subject of a passive clause would be strong evidence for transitivity. Surely if the clause sounds broken without the argument, that is another piece of evidence. Presumably tests could be constructed that even let the GOAL of a movement verb be considered a true argument.

I need to know what I can safely teach these students. I have a hard time telling them that only verbs like give and show can be called ditransitive, but is this the standard view out there? I am having trouble proving otherwise. One textbook I read (Analyzing Grammar, Paul Kroeger) talks about oblique arguments being real arguments of the verb, but it didn't give any definition of what constitutes a ditransitive verb.

  • I'd define it as 'A verb that licenses two objects, indirect and direct', e.g. "gave" in "Ed gave me the key", (i.e. S-P-Oi-Od). In your example "She put the keys in the drawer", the PP "in the drawer" is obligatory and hence is a complement, more specifically a non-core complement.
    – BillJ
    Sep 28 '17 at 15:39
  • According to the definition I'd use, a ditransitive verb has three arguments. So I'd basically agree with you, except not for your example 5, where "to Arizona" is just an adjunct.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 28 '17 at 15:42
  • 1
    Why quarrel about definitions? Giving definitions is not doing grammar.
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 28 '17 at 16:43
  • @curiousdannii I'd say that the PP "to Arizona" is not an adjunct but a complement, since it has to be licensed by the head "drive", i.e. a verb of motion.
    – BillJ
    Sep 28 '17 at 18:23
  • @BillJ Then would you say "from Alaska" and "by the expressway" would also be complements? Where does it end?
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 28 '17 at 21:24

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