Personal datives

“She wanted her some liver pudding.”

(Wolfram and Christian 1976)

A personal dative is a pronoun that occurs immediately after a verb and refers to the same person as the subject. For example, in the following sentences, them and me are personal datives that refer to the same individuals as the subjects they and I, respectively:

1)  a. They bought them a car.
         (Webelhuth and Dannenberg 2006, Southern American English)

b. I'm gonna write me a letter to my cousin.
(Christian 1991, Appalachian English)

Throughout this article, italics in an example sentence indicate that multiple noun phrases refer to the same entity.

Personal datives are unique because they do not contain the reflexive suffix -self (or its plural form -selves) that would have to be present in that position in standard English. For example, standard English does not permit the examples in (1), but it does allow (2a) and (2b), which are similar to (1a):

2) a. They bought themselves a car.

b. They bought a car for themselves.

However, it's not always possible to use a reflexive pronoun in positions where a personal dative pronoun is acceptable. For example, while (1b) is an acceptable personal dative, neither (3a) nor (3b) is acceptable in standard English, as pointed out by Christian (1991):

3) a. *I'm gonna write myself a letter to my cousin.

b. *I'm gonna write a letter to my cousin for myself.

Moreover, even when a standard English counterpart seems to be available, as in (2a) and (2b), the literature is unanimous in saying that the standard English counterpart has a different meaning than the personal dative; specifically, personal datives place a greater emphasis on the subject's involvement in the event (Webelhuth and Dannenberg 2006).

(Art by Michel)

Who says this?

Wolfram and Christian (1976), Christian (1991), Webelhuth and Dannenberg (2006), Conroy (2007), and Armstrong and Hutchinson (2008) describe the personal dative as associated with Southern American English and draw their examples from Appalachian English in particular. Wood et al. (2015, 2019) report on a series of surveys administered by the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, where it was found that personal datives are more prevalent in the South, but that this pattern is "not as strong or robust as other Southern dative constructions." The following map, based on these surveys, shows the average judgment of the personal dative construction on a scale of 1-5 (1 being unacceptable, 5 being fully acceptable).

Map created by Luke Lindemann on July 30th, 2020

See our interactive map below to explore some of the raw data in more detail.

Horn (2008) discusses the potential effect of the presence of personal datives in pop culture (like Toni Braxton's song "I Love Me Some Him") on spreading the construction to speakers that are not from the South. The findings of Wood et al. (2015, 2019) corroborate the notion that the personal dative construction is not strictly restricted to Southern speakers.

Syntactic properties

Unless otherwise noted, the properties discussed below only apply to personal datives as observed in varieties of English in the American South. These properties may or may not hold in the usages of personal datives that have spread to mainstream popular culture.

Allowed pronouns

Christian (1991) claims that any pronoun except it may be used as a personal dative. This is illustrated by the following examples adapted from Webelhuth and Dannenberg (2006); all are claimed to be acceptable except for (5c) (note that you may have a singular or plural reading in (4b)):

4) a. I got me some candy.

b. You got you some candy.

c. We got us some candy.

5) a. He got him some candy.

b. She got her some candy.

c. *It got it some candy.

d. They got them some candy.

Christian (1991) notes that first- and second-person personal datives occur much more frequently than third-person ones. The claim that it is a completely unacceptable personal dative, however, turns out not to be true—at least not for all speakers. Sroda & Michoe (1995) provide examples such as That house needs it a new roof.

According to Horn (2008), personal datives usually cannot be stressed or coordinated (grouped with another noun or noun phrase using and), although the restriction on coordination is not absolute for all speakers.

Position next to the verb

The indirect object in standard constructions with two objects may appear in any of several locations. For example, (6a) can instead have its indirect object within a prepositional phrase as in (6b), or the indirect object can be moved to sentence-initial position, as in (6c) or (6d):

6) a. I gave him a watch.

b. I gave a watch to him.

c. Him, I gave a watch; her, I gave a phone.

d. He was given a watch by me.

However, personal datives must appear to the immediate right of the verb (Webelhuth and Dannenberg 2006). Thus, of the following four examples, only (7a) is acceptable (under the desired interpretation):

7) a. I got me a watch.

b. *I got a watch for me.

c. *Me, I got a watch.

d. *I was given a watch by me.

With direct objects

Personal datives can only appear after verbs that have direct objects (Christian 1991:12). Thus, the following three sentences are unacceptable (Hutchinson and Armstrong 2014:183):

8) a. *Sue ran her all day.

b. *John worked him at the shop.

c. *I went me to the store.

Webelhuth and Dannenberg (2006) observe that, in a personal dative construction, the direct object of the verb is generally introduced by an indefinite marker like some or a few, examples of which are shown in (9a) and (9b), respectively:

9) a. Mary would love her some flowers.

b. Mary would love her a few flowers.

Horn (2008) brings up some counter-examples to this restriction, based on Google searches that yield examples like those in (10):

10)  a. I want me the cash.

b. I need me this {coffee mug/keyboard/book/sign/here album}.

As Horn notes, however, it is not clear whether such examples are produced by speakers from Southern American English or by speakers of other varieties of English, for whom the grammar of this construction might be different.

With double objects

According to Christian (1991), personal datives cannot occur with verbs that have non-prepositional indirect objects. Thus, although (11a) is acceptable, (11b) is not:

11)   a. He was looking to buy his family a house.

b. *He was looking to buy him his family a house.

However, if the indirect object is instead expressed with a prepositional phrase, a personal dative may be present, as in (12):

12) He was looking to buy him a house for his family.

Coreference and Binding Theory

A crucial aspect of personal datives is that they must be coreferential with the grammatical subject (Webelhuth and Dannenberg 2006). Thus, him in (13) is a personal dative when it refers to the same person as the subject, but not when it refers to someone else:

13)   He bought him some candy.

Therefore, personal datives are (at least apparently) exceptions to a principle in Binding Theory known as "Principle B" (see Conroy 2007 for further discussion). Principle B states that if two noun phrases in the same clause refer to the same individual, the second one cannot be a simple pronoun, such as him. For example, in a sentence like He saw him, the object him must refer to a different person than the subject He. According to Binding Theory, only a reflexive pronoun, such as himself, can be coreferential with the subject in that position.
But personal dative pronouns seem to violate Principle B: they involve two noun phrases in the same clause that refer to the same individual, and the second one is (and must be) a simple pronoun.

A few researchers have suggested possible explanations for this apparent violation. Conroy (2007) proposes that personal datives are actually reflexives that happen to be phonologically similar to pronouns; thus, Principle B is not relevant, and the fact that they must refer to the subject is explained. Horn (2008) classifies personal datives as "non-subcategorized" pronouns, which means that they are not arguments of the verb at all. He then points to some versions of Principle B that require the pronoun to be an argument of the verb in order to count.

Semantic properties

Agentive Focus

Webelhuth and Dannenberg (2006) state that the personal dative serves to "highlight the consequences of the subject's involvement in the event or state denoted by the verb." For example, consider the following sentences from Webelhuth and Dannenberg (2006):

14)  a. I love me some baked beans.

b. Fran likes her a day off every now and again.

c. Kim already baked her a cake this morning.

(14a) and (14b) emphasize the subjects' roles as experiencers of loving and liking. (14c) highlights Kim's role as the one who accomplished the baking of a cake. This property distinguishes personal datives from standard English double object constructions like (15):

15) Kim already baked herself a cake this morning.

Whereas the personal dative her in (14c) serves to highlight Kim's role as the agent who baked the cake, the reflexive herself in (15) highlights Kim's role as the beneficiary of the cake-baking. In fact, with the personal dative construction in (14c), Kim might even have baked the cake for someone else.

Positive Outcome

Horn (2008) states that personal datives suggest that "the action expressed has or would have a positive effect on the subject, typically satisfying the subject's perceived intention or goals." Hutchinson and Armstrong (2014) build on this notion by stating that the personal dative serves a "satisfactive" role; that is, the use of the personal dative indicates that the subject becomes satisfied by the event denoted by the verb. Therefore, in order for a sentence with a personal dative to be semantically well-formed, it is important that the subject has the intention, or at least the desire, for the event to occur. The following example sentences from Horn (2008) illustrate this point:

16) a. She caught her a catfish.

b. #She caught her a cold.

The hashtag # indicates that a sentence is not semantically acceptable.

Because getting sick is usually neither intentional nor beneficial, (16b) is "awkward or unacceptable for most speakers" (Horn 2008). The sentence in (16b) would only be acceptable in the unusual case that the subject contracted the cold on purpose.

Recent Survey Results

The interactive map below shows some of the raw data from our recent survey work.

Page contributed by Nick Huang on June 11, 2011 and revised by Tom McCoy on August 21, 2015.

Updates/revisions: June 27, 2018 (Katie Martin), June 5, 2024 (Sarah Sparling)

Please cite this page as: Huang, Nick and Tom McCoy. 2015. Personal datives. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD). Updated by Katie Martin (2018) and Sarah Sparling (2024).


Phenomenon Category: 
Phenomenon Dialect: 
Appalachian English
Ozark English
Smoky Mountain English
Southern American English