When I was studying linguistics at uni, one constant refrain was that native speakers (not grammarians) are the arbiters of what is and is not grammatical in a given language. None of this “you can’t put prepositions at the end of a sentence!” or “no split infinitives!” nonsense; those sound totally fine to English native speakers, so they’re grammatical.

This became a test that we ourselves would have to do; we’d be given sentences and we’d have to judge whether they sounded fine or whether they were wrong. One thing that I found hard was judging sentences that really did “sound wrong”, but were nonetheless things that me or my friends would absolutely say. The biggest example of this that sticks in my mind is double object pronouns.

Basically, learners of English are taught (and many linguists historically believed!) that you can’t build sentences with bare double objects if the direct object is a pronoun (you then have to introduce the indirect object with a preposition). So you can say I gave him the book, but if “the book” becomes “it”, it has to be I gave it to him; you can’t say I gave him it.

The problem with this supposition is, I gave him it is definitely something I would say. And it’s something my friends would’ve said growing up. I’ll admit that it does sound kind of wrong, but verbal utterances are full of things that sound kind of wrong if you analyse them as if they were written sentences. Something like There was a man who came, looked kind of angry is not a “correct” English sentence but unobjectionable in speech. Maybe the double object pronoun sounds a little more wrong than that, but if it’s something I literally say, how “wrong” can it actually be?

I had wondered for a while if the fact that my friends were non-native speakers had something to do with it – whether I’d assimilated a pattern that’s not actually “native-approved English”, but it sounds OK to me due to the amount of time I’ve spent around non-natives. I suppose that’s still possible, but yesterday I came across an academic paper on indirect object use (PDF)(external link) that revealed I’m not alone in my use of double object pronouns; their study of speakers at an American university found that utterances like I’ll forward you it or I’ll send you it are commonplace there, too.

I do feel like this construction sounds better with some object pronouns than others. Where the direct object is it, them or a demonstrative (like that or those), the sentence sounds better than if it’s something like her or you. Like, I’ll bring you them sounds fine, but I’ll bring them you (i.e. I’ll bring you to them) is much harder to parse and sounds way weirder.

Perhaps just because it’s a feature of my own speech, I’d be interested to see more research into this construction, where it’s actually used (because I’m sure there are some parts of the English-speaking world where this does sound very wrong), and what exactly are the invisible rules that govern its use. Relevant research is pretty thin on the ground so far, mainly because as I mentioned, the conventional wisdom has been that this structure doesn’t exist in English at all. Outside the world of academic linguistics, it can be even harder to get such discussions off the ground, because so many people are severely limited by the assumption that whatever was drilled into them at grade school is the be-all and end-all of the entire English language. English, with its many dialects, is much more diverse than what we’re taught at grade school and I think this variety is worth celebrating! But this is really the distinction between descriptive linguistics and prescriptive grammarianism(external link) I’m talking about now, which is a topic for another day. Overall: more research into English as actually spoken around the world? Yes, please.