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Ditransitive Clauses

Some verbs in some languages allow three core arguments. Clauses with three core arguments are called ditransitive or trivalent. They are often associated with verbs of giving and the semantic roles of actor (the one who gives), theme/patient (the thing that is given) and recipient/goal (the one who receives the given thing). Ditransitive clauses may also be used for concepts related to giving, for example teaching (which can be understood as giving knowledge).

All languages have means to express giving but not all languages have ditransitive clauses. In some languages, either recipient or the theme must be coded as an oblique argument, therefore the verb has only two core arguments and is (mono)transitive or bivalent. And then there are languages like English, where both options are available: I gave John a book is ditransitive, while I gave a book to John is monotransitive.

For more details on the distinction between core and oblique arguments, see Simple Verbal Clauses.

When a clause contains two non-subject core arguments, it is sometimes possible to say that one of them is “direct” and the other “indirect”; then the direct object will be labeled obj and the indirect iobj. Criteria for the distinction are language-specific. On the “coreness scale”, the direct object is considered more “core-like” than the indirect one, therefore one language-specific criterion might be that in the passive voice, the direct object is promoted as the new subject, while the indirect object does not change. Another possible criterion is that the role expressed by the indirect object can be alternatively encoded as an oblique argument, while such an option is not available for the direct object. The right to use the obj label is not bound to one of the two semantic roles; in some languages, the theme will be the direct object and the recipient will be indirect, but in other languages the opposite will hold, or none of the two objects will be clearly indirect.

If it cannot be established that one object is superior to the other, both will be labeled obj.

Coding Strategies


Some English verbs allow two objects (i.e., two core arguments following the verb):

The traditional approach outside UD is to call the first object indirect and the second object direct; it is often defined in terms of semantic roles, saying that the recipient is the indirect object. UD avoids referring to semantic roles but it is not so easy to provide supporting evidence that is based on syntax. The passivization criterion actually slightly prefers the recipient to be considered direct. In the above examples, the recipient (Kate, me) is arguably more core than the theme (book, mathematics) because the recipient can be promoted in passivization more readily than the theme (promotion of the theme is not completely ungrammatical though; some speakers of some dialects of English accept it):

The second object can be promoted more smoothly if both the subject and the first object are recoded as oblique arguments (in the case of to give) or the first object is removed (in the case of to teach):

On the other hand, the recipient can alternatively be expressed as an oblique argument, at least for the verb to give: Peter gave a book to Kate. For the theme, no alternative is available, it has to be encoded as a bare noun phrase (accusative in case of pronouns), which makes it closer to the patient in a primary transitive clause. The evidence thus seems to be conflicting and indecisive. However, in the interest of not causing unnecessary confusion by using the terminology opposite to the traditional grammar, recipients are labeled as indirect objects in English.

# text = Peter gave Kate a book.
1	Peter	Peter	PROPN	_	Number=Sing	2	nsubj	_	_
2	gave	give	VERB	_	Mood=Ind|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Fin	0	root	_	_
3	Kate	Kate	PROPN	_	Number=Sing	2	iobj	_	_
4	a	a	DET	_	Definite=Ind|PronType=Art	5	det	_	_
5	book	book	NOUN	_	Number=Sing	2	obj	_	SpaceAfter=No
6	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	2	punct	_	_

# text = Kate was given a book by Peter.
1	Kate	Kate	PROPN	_	Number=Sing	3	nsubj:pass	_	_
2	was	be	AUX	_	Mood=Ind|Number=Sing|Person=3|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Fin	3	aux:pass	_	_
3	given	give	VERB	_	Tense=Past|VerbForm=Part	0	root	_	_
4	a	a	DET	_	Definite=Ind|PronType=Art	5	det	_	_
5	book	book	NOUN	_	Number=Sing	3	obj	_	_
6	by	by	ADP	_	_	7	case	_	_
7	Peter	Peter	PROPN	_	Number=Sing	3	obl:agent	_	SpaceAfter=No
8	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	_


In contrast to English, French can form a ditransitive clause only if the recipient is realized as a pronominal clitic. If it is a full noun phrase, its coding will be always oblique (which means, in French as in English, that a preposition will be used):

# text = Pierre a donné un livre à Isabelle.
# text_en = Pierre gave a book to Isabelle.
1	Pierre	Pierre	PROPN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	3	nsubj	_	Gloss=Pierre
2	a	avoir	AUX	_	Mood=Ind|Number=Sing|Person=3|Tense=Pres|VerbForm=Fin	3	aux	_	Gloss=has
3	donné	donner	VERB	_	Tense=Past|VerbForm=Part	0	root	_	Gloss=given
4	un	un	DET	_	Definite=Ind|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|PronType=Art	5	det	_	Gloss=a
5	livre	livre	NOUN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	3	obj	_	Gloss=book
6	à	à	ADP	_	_	7	case	_	Gloss=to
7	Isabelle	Isabelle	PROPN	_	Gender=Fem|Number=Sing	3	obl	_	Gloss=Isabelle|SpaceAfter=No
8	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	Gloss=.

However, the third argument will be coded as core argument if it is a personal pronoun, thus forming a ditransitive clause:

# text = Pierre lui a donné un livre.
# text_en = Pierre gave her a book.
1	Pierre	Pierre	PROPN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	4	nsubj	_	Gloss=Pierre
2	lui	lui	PRON	_	Case=Dat|Number=Sing|Person=3|PronType=Prs	4	iobj	_	Gloss=him/her
3	a	avoir	AUX	_	Mood=Ind|Number=Sing|Person=3|Tense=Pres|VerbForm=Fin	4	aux	_	Gloss=has
4	donné	donner	VERB	_	Tense=Past|VerbForm=Part	0	root	_	Gloss=given
5	un	un	DET	_	Definite=Ind|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|PronType=Art	6	det	_	Gloss=a
6	livre	livre	NOUN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	4	obj	_	Gloss=book|SpaceAfter=No
7	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	4	punct	_	Gloss=.

We have two different constructions depending on whether the recipient is a pronoun or a noun. This alone could be used as an argument for saying that lui is the indirect object (iobj) and un livre is the direct object (obj). Another argument is that only the direct object can be promoted to subject in a passive construction:

Note that a nominative-accusative-dative construction can be used also in situations where the dative argument is better described as beneficiary rather than recipient. If the beneficiary is expressed as a dative pronoun (that is, a core argument), it is still labeled iobj:

# text = Il leur achète des livres.
# text_en = He buys books for them.
1	Il	il	PRON	_	Case=Nom|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|Person=3|PronType=Prs	3	nsubj	_	Gloss=he
2	leur	lui	PRON	_	Case=Dat|Number=Plur|Person=3|PronType=Prs	3	iobj	_	Gloss=them
3	achète	acheter	VERB	_	Mood=Ind|Number=Sing|Person=3|Tense=Pres|VerbForm=Fin	0	root	_	Gloss=buys
4	des	des	DET	_	Definite=Ind|Number=Plur|PronType=Art	5	det	_	Gloss=some
5	livres	livre	NOUN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Plur	3	obj	_	Gloss=books|SpaceAfter=No
6	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	Gloss=.

Finally, it is possible that the dative pronoun (representing an oblique noun phrase) occurs with a verb that takes just two core arguments, e.g., parler “to speak”. The dative argument behaves here like an indirect object in a ditransitive clause: it is not promoted to subject in passive constructions. Therefore it is also labeled iobj, although normally a monotransitive clause would have a nsubj and a direct obj.

# text = Je lui parle.
# text_en = I speak to him.
1	Je	je	PRON	_	Case=Nom|Number=Sing|Person=1|PronType=Prs	3	nsubj	_	Gloss=I
2	lui	lui	PRON	_	Case=Dat|Number=Sing|Person=3|PronType=Prs	3	iobj	_	Gloss=him
3	parle	parler	VERB	_	Mood=Ind|Number=Sing|Person=1|Tense=Pres|VerbForm=Fin	0	root	_	Gloss=speak|SpaceAfter=No
4	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	Gloss=.


In Spanish, like in French, a recipient realized as a noun must take a preposition (a) but it can be substituted by a dative pronoun (le, les, both genders), which appears without the preposition. However, the situation in Spanish is different in two aspects:

In fact, the appearance of the preposition a in direct objects is rather exceptional both in Spanish and in the broader context of Romance languages. The preposition is not used with inanimate direct objects, and it is used frequently with various types of adjuncts. Therefore we do not infer that prepositional phrases denoting recipients are core arguments. We treat them as oblique arguments, as in French and other related languages. Also in parallel with these languages, we reserve the iobj label for the dative pronouns le, les.

TBD: Now we have a new problem with clitic doubling. Previously, if there were both the pronoun and the a-phrase, we would make the a-phrase iobj and the pronoun expl. But now the pronoun is core and the a-phrase is oblique. Shouldn’t then the pronoun have higher priority and receive iobj? If so, what should be the a-phrase then? Dislocated?

It is not uncommon that both the noun phrase and the clitic are present, as in Pedro le dio un libro a Isabel. (this is known as “clitic doubling”).

# text = Pedro dio un libro a Isabel.
# text_en = Pedro gave Isabel a book.
1	Pedro	Pedro	PROPN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	2	nsubj	_	Gloss=Pedro
2	dio	dar	VERB	_	Mood=Ind|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Fin	0	root	_	Gloss=gave
3	un	un	DET	_	Definite=Ind|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|PronType=Art	4	det	_	Gloss=a
4	libro	libro	NOUN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	2	obj	_	Gloss=book
5	a	a	ADP	_	_	6	case	_	Gloss=to
6	Isabel	Isabel	PROPN	_	Gender=Fem|Number=Sing	2	obl:arg	_	Gloss=Isabel|SpaceAfter=No
7	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	2	punct	_	Gloss=.

# text = Pedro le dio un libro a Isabel.
# text_en = Pedro gave Isabel a book.
1	Pedro	Pedro	PROPN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	3	nsubj	_	Gloss=Pedro
2	le	él	PRON	_	Case=Dat|Number=Sing|Person=3|PronType=Prs	3	expl	_	Gloss=her
3	dio	dar	VERB	_	Mood=Ind|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Fin	0	root	_	Gloss=gave
4	un	un	DET	_	Definite=Ind|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|PronType=Art	5	det	_	Gloss=a
5	libro	libro	NOUN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	3	obj	_	Gloss=book
6	a	a	ADP	_	_	7	case	_	Gloss=to
7	Isabel	Isabel	PROPN	_	Gender=Fem|Number=Sing	3	obl:arg	_	Gloss=Isabel|SpaceAfter=No
8	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	Gloss=.

# text = Pedro le dio un libro.
# text_en = Pedro gave her a book.
1	Pedro	Pedro	PROPN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	3	nsubj	_	Gloss=Pedro
2	le	él	PRON	_	Case=Dat|Number=Sing|Person=3|PronType=Prs	3	iobj	_	Gloss=her
3	dio	dar	VERB	_	Mood=Ind|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Fin	0	root	_	Gloss=gave
4	un	un	DET	_	Definite=Ind|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|PronType=Art	5	det	_	Gloss=a
5	libro	libro	NOUN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	3	obj	_	Gloss=book|SpaceAfter=No
6	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	Gloss=.

There is no doubt that the dative argument is the one that should be labeled as indirect. First, it is optional because it can be substituted by a prepositional phrase and the clause then becomes monotransitive. Second, if the clause is passivized, the direct object is promoted to the subject relation, while the indirect object stays untouched. Hence the indirect object is less core than the direct object.

# text = Un libro le fue dado por Pedro.
# text_en = A book was given her by Pedro.
1	Un	un	DET	_	Definite=Ind|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|PronType=Art	2	det	_	Gloss=a
2	libro	libro	NOUN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	5	nsubj:pass	_	Gloss=book
3	le	él	PRON	_	Case=Dat|Number=Sing|Person=3|PronType=Prs	5	iobj	_	Gloss=her
4	fue	ser	AUX	_	Mood=Ind|Number=Sing|Person=3|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Fin	5	aux:pass	_	Gloss=was
5	dado	dar	VERB	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Part	0	root	_	Gloss=given
6	por	por	ADP	_	_	7	case	_	Gloss=by
7	Pedro	Pedro	PROPN	_	Gender=Masc|Number=Sing	5	obl:agent	_	Gloss=Pedro|SpaceAfter=No
8	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	5	punct	_	Gloss=.

Similarly to French, the dative pronoun can occur with verbs that only license one argument, such as hablar “to speak”. We could rule that the dative pronoun be labeled iobj even in these cases, as we did in French. However, the corresponding noun phrase in French would be oblique. In Spanish, it is a normal direct object (provided that it is animate) because the preposition a is allowed with animate direct objects in Spanish:

Either this is fine with us, but then we perhaps also want to treat these datives as direct objects if they are pronouns or if the language is French. Or we say that if the a-phrase alternates with a dative pronoun, it is oblique. Or maybe we want to say that dative arguments are core arguments neither in Spanish, nor in French. This would also save us the necessity to explain why they are not core in German and Czech.


In Czech (as well as in other Slavic languages and also in German), the giving verb takes two arguments, one in the accusative (corresponding to the patient or theme), and one in the dative (corresponding to the recipient). Both are considered objects in the traditional grammar; however, since the dative is not a core case in these languages, it must be labeled obl or obl:arg, and the clause is not ditransitive.

(There are also three-argument verbs where none of the two non-subject arguments is accusative. For example, in Muž vyhrožoval sousedovi smrtí. “A man threatened his neighbor with death.” one of the arguments is dative and the other is instrumental. Neither dative nor instrumental is a core case, hence the clause is intransitive with two oblique arguments.)

There is no difference between nouns and pronouns (except for word order, which is restricted for pronouns that are clitics, but does not play a role in core argument coding).

# text = Petr dal Katce knihu.
# text_en = Petr gave Katka a book.
1	Petr	Petr	PROPN	_	Animacy=Anim|Case=Nom|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|Polarity=Pos	2	nsubj	_	Gloss=Petr
2	dal	dát	VERB	_	Animacy=Anim|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|Polarity=Pos|Tense=Past|VerbForm=Part	0	root	_	Gloss=gave
3	Katce	Katka	PROPN	_	Case=Dat|Gender=Fem|Number=Sing|Polarity=Pos	2	obl:arg	_	Gloss=to-Katka
4	knihu	kniha	NOUN	_	Case=Acc|Gender=Fem|Number=Sing|Polarity=Pos	2	obj	_	Gloss=book|SpaceAfter=No
5	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	2	punct	_	Gloss=.

The only Czech verb that is capable of forming ditransitive clauses under the UD definition is učit “to teach”, which takes two accusative objects.

One object represents the theme (mathematics) and the other the recipient (me). Either one can be omitted and then we have a normal transitive clause with an accusative object that can be promoted via passivization. However, if both arguments are present in the active clause, it is not possible to promote one of them and leave the other untouched; the grammar does not tolerate a bare accusative argument in a passive clause. Also note that there is a slightly archaic alternative where the theme (not the recipient!) takes the dative form. Here the passive might in theory be available but it still sounds clumsy.

There thus does not seem to be any evidence that one of the accusatives is more core than the other. We have an example of a clause with two objects, neither of which is indirect.

# text = Tomáš mě učí matematiku.
# text_en = Tomáš teaches me mathematics.
1	Tomáš	Tomáš	PROPN	_	Animacy=Anim|Case=Nom|Gender=Masc|Number=Sing|Polarity=Pos	3	nsubj	_	Gloss=Tomáš
2	mě	já	PRON	_	Case=Acc|Number=Sing|Person=1|PronType=Prs|Variant=Short	3	obj	_	Gloss=me
3	učí	učit	VERB	_	Mood=Ind|Number=Sing|Person=3|Polarity=Pos|Tense=Pres|VerbForm=Fin	0	root	_	Gloss=teaches
4	matematiku	matematika	NOUN	_	Case=Acc|Gender=Fem|Number=Sing|Polarity=Pos	3	obj	_	Gloss=mathematics|SpaceAfter=No
5	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	Gloss=.


See also: Fernando Zúñiga, Beatriz Fernández (draft 26.6.2014): Grammatical relations in Basque

There are verbs that take all three cases that count as core in Basque: the ergative, the absolutive and the dative. In such constructions, the ergative encodes the A function, absolutive the P function (also T function = theme-like), and dative the G function (goal). In terms of dependency relations, it seems reasonable to label the ergative as nsubj, absolutive as obj and dative as iobj just to distinguish them and to acknowledge that absolutives and ergatives are more frequent than datives; though the grammar does not seem to target the absolutive argument in specific rules, which would make it more core-like than the dative.

# text = Nik zuri liburua eman dizut.
# text_en = I have given you a book.
1	Nik	ni	PRON	_	Case=Erg|Number=Sing|Person=1|PronType=Prs	4	nsubj	_	Gloss=I
2	zuri	zu	PRON	_	Case=Dat|Number=Sing|Person=2|PronType=Prs	4	iobj	_	Gloss=you
3	liburua	liburu	NOUN	_	Animacy=Inan|Case=Abs|Definite=Def|Number=Sing	4	obj	_	Gloss=book
4	eman	eman	VERB	_	Aspect=Perf|VerbForm=Part	0	root	_	Gloss=given
5	dizut	*edun	AUX	_	Mood=Ind|Number[abs]=Sing|Number[dat]=Sing|Number[erg]=Sing|Person[abs]=3|Person[dat]=2|Person[erg]=1|VerbForm=Fin	4	aux	_	Gloss=have|SpaceAfter=No
6	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	4	punct	_	Gloss=.

# sent_id = test-s452
# text = Zezenak saihetsa pitzatu zidan.
# text_en = The bull cracked my rib.
1	Zezenak	zezen	NOUN	_	Animacy=Anim|Case=Erg|Definite=Def|Number=Sing	3	nsubj	_	Gloss=bull
2	saihetsa	saihets	NOUN	_	Animacy=Inan|Case=Abs|Definite=Def|Number=Sing	3	obj	_	Gloss=rib
3	pitzatu	pitzatu	VERB	_	Aspect=Perf|VerbForm=Part	0	root	_	Gloss=cracked
4	zidan	*edun	AUX	_	Mood=Ind|Number[abs]=Sing|Number[dat]=Sing|Number[erg]=Sing|Person[abs]=3|Person[dat]=1|Person[erg]=3|VerbForm=Fin	3	aux	_	Gloss=has-to-me|SpaceAfter=No
5	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	3	punct	_	Gloss=.

Note that with some predicates the dative argument can be interpreted as having the beneficiary role. Some authors may argue that this role is already behind the dividing line between arguments and adjuncts, and if a nominal is an adjunct, it cannot be a core argument. However, in Basque the dative argument is cross-referenced by verbal inflection, hence it is clearly a core argument despite its semantic role.


In Tagalog, the verbs of giving form a standard transitive clause in the agent and patient voices, as the recipient is coded as a directional (locative) oblique dependent.

# text = Nagbigay ang lalaki ng libro sa babae.
# text_en = The man gave a book to the woman.
1	Nagbigay	bigay	VERB	_	Aspect=Perf|Mood=Ind|VerbForm=Fin|Voice=Act	0	root	_	Gloss=gave
2	ang	ang	ADP	_	Case=Nom	3	case	_	Gloss=the
3	lalaki	lalaki	NOUN	_	_	1	nsubj	_	Gloss=man
4	ng	ng	ADP	_	Case=Gen	5	case	_	_
5	libro	libro	NOUN	_	_	1	obj	_	Gloss=book
6	sa	sa	ADP	_	Case=Dat	7	case	_	Gloss=DIR
7	babae	babae	NOUN	_	_	1	obl	_	Gloss=woman|SpaceAfter=No
8	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	1	punct	_	Gloss=.

However, locative dependents can be topicalized if the verb morphology signals the “locative voice”. Then the locative noun phrase switches to nominative, it becomes a core argument, while the original two core arguments keep core coding, too. Therefore we have a ditransitive clause with three core arguments, even for verbs that are not associated with ditransitives in other languages:

# sent_id = 3.111c/tl
# text = Aalisan ng babae ng bigas ang sako para sa bata.
# gloss = FUT-take.out-DP ACT woman OBJ rice PIV sack BEN child
# text_en = A/the woman will take some rice out of the sack for a/the child.
# DP = directional pivot; PIV = pivot marker
1	Aalisan	alis	VERB	_	Aspect=Prog|Mood=Ind|VerbForm=Fin|Voice=Lfoc	0	root	_	Gloss=will-take-out|MSeg=a-alis-an|MGloss=FUT-take.out-DP
2	ng	ng	ADP	_	Case=Gen	3	case	_	_
3	babae	babae	NOUN	_	_	1	iobj:agent	_	Gloss=woman
4	ng	ng	ADP	_	Case=Gen	5	case	_	_
5	bigas	bigas	NOUN	_	_	1	obj:patient	_	Gloss=rice
6	ang	ang	ADP	_	Case=Nom	7	case	_	Gloss=the
7	sako	sako	NOUN	_	_	1	nsubj:loc	_	Gloss=sack
8	para	para	ADP	_	_	10	case	_	Gloss=for
9	sa	sa	ADP	_	Case=Dat	10	case	_	Gloss=BEN
10	bata	bata	NOUN	_	_	1	obl	_	Gloss=child|SpaceAfter=No
11	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	1	punct	_	Gloss=.

Plains Cree

See also:

Plains Cree cross-references at most two core arguments on the verb. It also has a locative case affix that marks a noun phrase as oblique. If there is a verb which takes three arguments, the third argument is neither cross-referenced, nor marked by the locative case. It is therefore less core than the first two arguments, but more core than ordinary adjuncts. If we accept it as core, it will be labeled iobj, the least core-like argument.

Unlike in some European languages, in Plains Cree it is always the recipient-like argument that is more important and cross-referenced, while the theme stays outside. Hence the recipient (goal) is more core than the theme, and deserves to be labeled obj.

# text = Nikī-miyāw anima masinahikan.
# text_en = I gave him/her that book.
1	Nikī-miyāw	miy	VERB	_	Animacy=Anim|Mood=Ind|Number[high]=Sing|Number[low]=Sing|Person[high]=1|Person[low]=3|Tense=Past|Voice=Dir	0	root	_	Gloss=I-gave-him/her|MSeg=ni-kī-miy-ā-w|MGloss=1-PAST-give.to-DIR-3SG
2	anima	anima	DET	_	Animacy=Inan|Number=Sing|PronType=Dem	3	det	_	Gloss=that|MGloss=DEM.0's
3	masinahikan	masinahikan	NOUN	_	Animacy=Inan|Number=Sing	1	iobj	_	Gloss=book|SpaceAfter=No
4	.	.	PUNCT	_	_	1	punct	_	Gloss=.

In the above example, the verb stem used is for animate objects, while masinahikan “book” is inanimate. That is a proof that the 3rd person singular cross-reference on the verb does not refer to the book but to an animate recipient that is not overtly represented in the sentence.

Summary of Relations

The features discussed in this chapter are nsubj, obj, iobj (core arguments) and obl resp. obl:arg (oblique dependents).

There are other optional subtypes of these relations defined elsewhere in this documentation or in language-specific guidelines. If such subtypes exist, then quite naturally the label without subtype denotes only the remaining cases, not covered by subtypes.