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What Is the Dative Case?

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  • Written By: Emily Daw
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 27 October 2016
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The dative case is the grammatical case used for indirect objects in many languages. Most commonly, an indirect object follows a verb like "to give" and indicates the person something is done for or something is given to. In English, the indirect object follows the verb and precedes the direct object. In other languages, both the placement and the function of a word in the dative case may be more flexible.

Verbs that can take direct objects are known as "ditransitive" because they can take both direct and indirect objects. Verbs meaning "to give" or "to send" are the most common ditransitives, as in, "I will give you the key." In this example, "you" is the indirect object and "the key" is the direct object. Other verbs may occasionally take indirect objects, as in, "Jack will write Alex a check." In this case, the dative indicates for whom something is done.

Datives should not be confused with prepositional phrases that may serve the same semantic purpose. "George delivers the pizza to Elizabeth" does not have an indirect object, because "to Elizabeth," which indicates to whom the pizza was given, is a prepositional phrase coming after the direct object. It is not in the dative case. The sentence may be reworded as "George gives Elizabeth the pizza," which would then contain an indirect object.

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Grammarians disagree about whether English has a true dative case. Strictly speaking, "case" indicates that the word has undergone some sort of change in morphology, or spelling, to indicate its function in the sentence. On the other hand, a word in English is shown to be an indirect object by its placement in the sentence rather than by the form of the word itself. Pronouns are occasionally exceptions, as in, "To whom did you give the ice cream?" where "who" changes to "whom" because of its role as an indirect object. Since "whom" is also the form used for direct objects, however, some grammarian classify both together as the objective case.

Datives are both far more common and far more useful in Latin than in English. In addition to its use in as an indirect object, the dative case may also serve the same function that a prepositional phrase serves in English. For instance, the sentence Bonum mihi videtur translates as "It seems good to me." The dative mihi is translated "to me," even though it is not an indirect object. Latin also has a dative of benefit, which indicates that something was done for a particular person, as in, Condo librem tibi, or, "I bring the book for you." Other uses for the dative in Latin include the dative of purpose, dative of separation, dative of interest, and dative of possession.

Some grammarians argue that these alternative uses for the dative in inflected languages actually make up separate cases, and that the true dative is used only for indirect objects. Some Koine Greek grammars, for instance, list dative, locative, and instrumental cases where others have only a dative case. The form of all three cases is the same, but the functions are different.

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