A Word, Please: Birth, seahorses and the indirect object

Imagine for a moment you’re a teacher reading a student’s paper and you come across the statement, “My mother gave me birth.”

What do you do? Do you blow right past it, thinking it sounds fine? Do you subtract a few points for the utter inelegance of it? Do you note the subtle biblical vibe and decide to give the student good grades from here out just in case he’s the second coming of someone you don’t want to mess with? Do you whip out your red pen and write, “Duh”?

If you’re like a teacher who wrote me recently, it’s the grammar that interests you most — how “she gave me birth” is treated as just another way of saying “she gave birth to me.” But is that grammatical, or is it just wrong?

To find out, the best place to start is a good dictionary. Under the word “birth,” “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” includes the definition “to give birth to.” That tells us that this is a standard construction. It does not, however, mention whether “to give birth to” can be re-jiggered in a sentence like “She gave me birth.” For that, you need to understand a little about grammar.

Compare the sentences “Brad gave a gift to Liz” and “Brad gave Liz a gift.” They mean the same thing, but the second one swaps out the prepositional phrase “to Liz” for something called an indirect object.

A direct object receives the action in a verb. In “I sent the letter,” the letter is the thing being acted upon by the verb. It’s the thing being sent. But an indirect object works differently. An indirect object is actually an alternative to using a prepositional phrase like “to Liz.”

Take the sentence “Brad sent the letter to Liz,” then drop the “to” and move “Liz” to the spot before the direct object, and you get “Brad sent Liz the letter.” That’s when Liz ceases to become the object of the preposition and instead becomes an indirect object of our verb.

An indirect object pronoun is just the same thing in pronoun form, as in “Brad sent her the letter,” in which the pronoun “her” is standing in for “Liz.” Either way, it’s still the indirect object.

So English grammar lets us ditch a “to” phrase in favor of an indirect object. That means that “My mother gave birth to me” can, grammatically, be restated as “My mother gave me birth.” But that doesn’t mean it should be.

For one thing, the oddness of “my mother gave me birth” caused at least one reader to stumble, distracting him from the student’s message. That’s never good in writing.

What’s more, in language, popularity counts. A widely used expression has a credibility that less popular variations of it do not. Widely used phrases are said to be idiomatic, which means they’re acceptable within the language even if they’re not grammatical.

I did a Google search for “gave birth to him” and got 1.4 million hits. And a search for “gave him birth” produced 523,000. That was higher than I expected, but I noticed that hits for the indirect object form tended to cite archaic uses: a few from the Bible, one from Oedipus Rex and a 1928 essay about Calvin Coolidge.

Anyone who’s interested in grammar or writing style will probably conclude that “My mother gave birth to me” is better than “my mother gave me birth.” But anyone who’s also interested in logic may see a bigger issue, which is: Unless you’re worried the reader is confusing you with a seahorse, why would you bother saying this in the first place?

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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