Monday, 27 January 2014

Give it me!

...or give me it!...or give it to me! ?

IImagine you are Harry Potter facing Voldemort with the Philosopher`s stone in your hand. The Dark Lord is overwhelmed by a desire to get the stone, so he says, ‘Give it me!’. Would you be confused? Obviously, what he means is either ‘give it to me!’ or ‘give me it!’. What Johanna Gerwin would say about it, having conducted a study on double object constructions of this kind, is that Lord Voldemort is using a dialect form and that he is likely to come from the Midlands.

Some verbs, such as give or tell, are ditransitive; that is, they must be accompanied by two other ‘object’ words. This means that give is not happy on its own – instead, something (the theme) must be given to someone (the recipient). In the Harry Potter example the Philosopher`s stone is the theme and Voldemort is the recipient. The reason these verbs are interesting is that they allow for multiple linguistic options. Basically, Voldemort could have said the same thing in three different ways:

  • Using a preposition: ‘give it to me!’ (PREP)
  • Using a double-object construction: ‘give me it!’ (DOC)
  • Or using the alternative double-object construction: ‘give it me!’ (AltDOC)

Johanna Gerwin conducted a corpus study to investigate which form is preferred in which region in Britain. The two language data bases she used (the Freiburg English Dialect Corpus, or FRED, and the online British National Corpus) were compiled with a twenty years` time difference, so she could also look at how these preferences changed over time. She was interested specifically in the dialect variants of ditransitives. 

According to the older corpus, FRED, in 76% of cases, people in all 4 regions (Southeast, Southwest, Midlands, North) used the prepositional variant. DOC and AltDOC were also used alongside PREP, but regional preferences were evident. For instance, AltDOC was preferred in the Midlands, accounting for 27% of all ditransitive constructions, whereas Northerners favoured DOC more than the inhabitants of the other regions (36% in comparison to 11% in the Southeast and 7% in the Midlands).

The data from the more recent corpus, the BNC, generally support this, with one little exception. The DOC variant outnumbers PREP in the North, accounting for more than half of all occurrences of ditransitives (54%). Otherwise, the picture is roughly the same.

So does this mean that people`s language preferences are static, and never prone to change? The answer is ‘no’, because Johanna Gerwin identified certain trends which indicate the forms people might favour in the future. For example, the overall use of PREP is declining everywhere, with the most drastic plummet from 91% to 54% in the Southwest. This doesn`t mean that people have stopped using the prepositional variant altogether, though.  Overall, PREP remains the dominant variant (except in the Northern region), but now other forms are competing with it, such as the DOC construction. According to the recent data, use of this form is increasing in all regions, especially in the North. Actually, DOC is now clearly preferred there. In other words, now people are more likely to use the DOC construction in a situation  in which they would have used PREP twenty years ago. The use of AltDOC is also increasing, in the southern regions in particular. 

So the chances are, in a couple of decades PREP will not be the most frequently-used form anymore. DOC or AltDOC might pop in here and there, and so Lord Voldemort`s order ‘Give it me !’ might sound pretty standard.

Gerwin, Johanna (2013) Give it me! pronominal ditransitives in English dialects. English Language and Linguistics 17 (3): 445-463.

doi. 10.1017/S1360674313000117

This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska


  1. Very interesting. I say it "Give it me" ...and I am from the Midlands (childhood in the 50s). But I've long been conscious that this construction can elicit "funny looks" from some other English-language speakers.

    I haven't read any of the HP books: did J.K. Rowling actually write "Give it me"? (She's from Gloucestershire: borderline SW Midlands and SW English generally).

    I'm surprised that a "Lord" would say "Give it me", though, as to my ears "Give it to me" is the "posh" form that you 'd expect from an aristocratic speaker.

    "Give me it" sounds distinctly odd: perhaps something you might hear from a speaker of English-as-a-second-language: on a par with those Germans (and some Americans, oddly enough) who say "I wish you would have told me" instead of "I wish you had told me". But that is ein ganz anderer Kessel Fische...

  2. "Accio stone" might work best ;-)