I'm only really familiar with English and a few European languages, so to my mind it is normal for a language to have a double object construction and/or an NP-PP construction, as in

John gave [Mary] [a book]


John gave [a book] [to Mary]

English (and as far as I know a few others like German maybe) also have a limited "tritransitive" construction, where verbs like "bet" or "fine" can take three objects:

John bet [Mary] [five bucks] [that she couldn't spit further than him]

John fined [Mary] [fifty dollars] [for cycling on the sidewalk]

Maybe that's a little controversial. Anyhow, is it "normal" for languages to have either of these constructions? Also, is the restriction on so-called "tritransitives" equally as restricted to monetary terms as it is in English?

  • Welcome to the site! Can you perhaps define transitivity more precisely? It seems you mean "having any verbal complement", not "having a direct object"? So any verb with two or three complements would count? And can you define "normal"? Are you looking for a universal linguistic feature, or what? (You already said many other European languages can behave like your examples, and I'm afraid my knowledge does not go beyond European languages either...)
    – Cerberus
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 15:46
  • I suppose when I say "transitive" I'm just counting arguments, so yes, any verb with two or three complements would be interesting to me at this stage. I suppose I mean "normal" as a stand in for "common", not necessarily universal - I guess I'm interested to see if it's limited to a certain family or area or something. And thanks, the site is great!
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 21:27

2 Answers 2


Ditransitives of the English type are very rare. Most languages use either case marking on nouns to signify grammatical relations or polypersonal head-marking. By "English type" I mean that both objects can be passivized. Your example can be paraphrased as "A book was given to Mary by John" or "Mary was given a book by John".

  • 1
    Also, ditransitivity is fairly widely attested cross-linguistically, but of course ditransitive constructions in different languages often display different properties - this can often be derived from independent differences between the languages in question. See this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures for further details: wals.info/chapter/105,
    – P Elliott
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 0:42
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    The bit of your question on verbs with n > 2 internal arguments is a lot more interesting to me. I don't think there's been much work on that. This paper from Linguistics is the only thing that springs to mind: degruyter.com/view/j/ling.2007.45.issue-3/ling.2007.015/…
    – P Elliott
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 1:25
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    @Dave Sure, that's more common. Polypersonality occurs in many Native American languages and in NW Caucasian. In Aymara, for example, Qawr churäma "I will give you a llama" qawr is the direct object while the recipient is expressed by a suffix on the verb.
    – Atamiri
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 10:16
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    Right. In English the Passive promotes the Direct Object to Subject. Period. But what counts as the "Direct Object" is fairly complex. For instance, if Passive is preceded by the Dative Alternation -- which has the effect of deleting the preposition to marking the Indirect Object, and promoting the IO to DO -- then the original Indirect Object gets to be Subject, via Dative plus Passive. It's a marked construction, and it takes two steps.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 16:32
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    Bresnan English is just the way Joan Bresnan thinks and talks about English grammar. Not that many people use that way of talking. The way I was talking was Relational or Arc Pair grammar.
    – jlawler
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 19:28

In general terms, yes, ditransitives are universal as far as we know. You can take a look at this paper by Haspelmath

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    It depends on what you call ditransitive. If you accept "Ich dab dem Kind den Apfel" (I gave the child the apple) in German with dative and accusative markings, then it is widespread. If your definition of ditransitive includes the ability to make any of the three nouns the subject as in "The child was given an apple by me" then it is rare.
    – Henry
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 23:07
  • @Henry That's not the definition usually employed in typology as far as I've seen, do you know of typological studies where they use that definition? what would be the reason for doing so? BTW, you misspelled "gab".
    – MGN
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 23:19

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