Double Object Constructions with ‘spare’ and ‘save’

As some of you will be aware, I am looking at Double Object Constructions (henceforth DOCs) for my thesis. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the terminology, DOCs look like this:

1) Mary gave the boy a book.

Traditionally, as many grammar bods will know, the objects in such sentences have been analysed as indirect and direct object respectively. This gives the impression that, since transitive sentences also contain direct objects, the second of the two objects in a DOC is the more ‘object-like’ than the first. For terminologically practical purposes, let’s call the traditional indirect object O1, and the direct object O2 in DOCs and O0 in ordinary transitive sentences (after Hudson, 1992):

2) Mary bought [the book]O0

3) Mary gave [the boy]O1 [the book]O2

Bizarrely, however, it is not O2, but O1 that gets passivized in English, much like O0. Try to passivize O2 and it’s ungrammatical.

2) a. Mary bought [the book]O0

b. [The book]O0 was bought (by Mary).

3) a. Mary gave [the boy]O1 [the book]O2

b. [The boy]O1 was given [the book]O2 (by Mary).

c. *[The book]O2 was given [the boy]O1 (by Mary).

(The asterisk denotes ungrammatical sentences.)

It’s worth noting two things here. 1) Some speakers don’t mind 3)c and find it quite acceptable, but certainly in standard English it’s out, at least as far as I’m aware. 2) The astute among you will probably say that 3)c becomes grammatical if you add ‘to’ before ‘the boy’:

3) c. i. [The book] was given [to the boy] (by Mary).

The even more astute will recognise that this is actually a passivized version of the following sentence involving an object and a PP (prepositional phrase):

3) c. ii. Mary gave [the book] [to the boy].

It just so happens that ‘give’ is known as an ‘alternating verb’, that is, it allows either a DOC of the type seen in 1) as well as a construction with a single object and a PP as in 3). There are lots of verbs like this, e.g. send, carry. While this is interesting, the object+PP version is not generally treated as a DOC (well, not by most linguists in any case). There are also many non-alternating verbs, such as ‘bill’ verbs (bill, bet, charge, fine etc) and ‘appoint’ verbs (appoint, declare, judge, deem, etc) (different semantic classes of alternating and non-alternating verbs are outlined in Levin, 1993). In any case, they behave in the same way: you can passivize O1 and O0, but not O2:

4) a. Mary charged [the boy]O0.

b. [The boy]O0 was charged (by Mary).

5) a. Mary charged [the boy]O1 [five pounds]O2.

b. [The boy]O1 was charged [five pounds]O2 (by Mary).

c. *[Five pounds]O2 were/was charged [the boy]O1 (by Mary). (1)

The verbs ‘send’ and ‘spare’, when not used in the monetary sense, seem to behave differently with regards to passivization, which is baffling me currently. The following are attested from online corpora, the British National Corpus (BNC) or the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

(6) … all the infirmities of old age were going to be spared me. (COCA)

If we annotate this and provide an active version, we can see that O2 has been passivized:

(6) a. … [all the infirmities of old age]o2 were going to be spared [me]O1. (COCA) (attested version)

b. Death was going to spare [me]O1 [all the infirmities of old age]O2.

But O1 is just as passifizable, if not more so.

(6) c. [I]O1 was going to be spared [all the infirmities of old age]O2 (by death).

The same is true of ‘save’. I won’t go through all the active and passivized versions, but here’s the passivized O2 sentence I found:

(7) After we once learned to read these signs, much tedious trailing was saved us, for we had but to count the intervening ridges.

(from Heizer & Kroeber (1979). Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History)

Indeed, to me, the passivized O2 versions sound grammatical, if a bit archaic. What do other people think? If it’s a case of dialectal variation, why is it that passivized O2s of other verbs like give, send and carry are so much less grammatical than passivized O2s of spare and save? Is this just a relic? I’m not clued up on the history of English: could it be that O2 used to be the object passivized (indeed English is the only language I’ve ever come across that passivizes O1, so it’s typologically in the minority) and that this has changed, but spare and save preserve residual constructions with passivized O2s?

Thoughts appreciated!



(1) It has been brought to my attention that not all linguists consider the example in 4)b to be a DOC, or indeed many other look-a-like DOCs with verbs that behave differently from those like give, send, and carry. Linguists who believe this analyse the second ‘object’ as some kind of predicative complement. My view (at the moment) is that they act like objects, so I’m not persuaded to treat them as anything else but objects (not even the space-age term of ‘objoid’ which is doing the rounds at the moment)



Hudson, R. 1992. So-called ‘Double Objects’ and Grammatical Relations. Lg. 68.251-276.

Levin, B. 1993. English Verb Classes and Alternations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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3 Responses to Double Object Constructions with ‘spare’ and ‘save’

  1. Robert Simpson says:

    For what it’s worth, examples like ” all the infirmities of old age were going to be spared me” and “much tedious trailing was saved us” don’t strike me as archaic but as new-fangled. It might be worth trying to find out whether the construction really is attested more frequently in older material.

    • Fawwaz An-Nashef says:

      In these cases, the indirect objects are light pronominals (me,us) and it is attested that if the indirect object is a light pronominal, the direct object can be the subject of passive..

      • quirkycase says:

        Hi, thanks for your comment. I have come across arguments like this before. I haven’t ever found them very convincing though. Pronouns often have prosodic constraints, I know. Take ‘give’. You can’t have a pronominal direct object if the indirect object is ‘heavy’.

        1. a. The man gave the boy a book.
        b. *The man gave the boy it.
        c. The man gave him a book.
        d. The man gave him it.

        Likewise, if you passivize the direct object, it sounds a heck of a lot better when i. it is a pronoun and ii. the indirect object is also ‘light’

        2. a. ?A book was given the boy.
        b. ?It was given the boy.
        c. It was given him.

        Not convinced it works with verbs other than ‘give’ though. Think about non-alternating verbs like ‘tip’.

        3. a. The man tipped the waitress ten pounds.
        b. ?It was tipped the waitress

        (b) sounds very bad to me!

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