Personal datives

“She wanted her some liver pudding.”

(Wolfram and Christian 1976)

A personal dative is a pronoun that occurs immediately after a verb whose subject and pronoun are coreferential—that is, they refer to the same person. For example, in the following sentences, them and me are personal datives that are coreferential with 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)

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, not all personal datives have counterparts in standard English. 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 for 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.

Horn (2008) discusses the presence of personal datives in pop culture (like Toni Braxton's song "I love me some him" ) and cites certain attestations in speakers that are not from the South.

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 (4e) (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. He got him some candy.

d. She got her some candy.

e. *It got it some candy.

f. We got us some candy.

g. 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 completely unacceptable, 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 may neither be stressed nor coordinated (grouped with another noun or noun phrase using and), although the restriction on coordination is not absolute for all speakers. For example, the following is at least somewhat acceptable for some speakers:

5) % She bought her and Kim some ice cream.

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.

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. Instead, it can be a reflexive pronoun, such as himself. For example, in a sentence like He saw him, the object him cannot refer to the same person as the subject He. In a sentence like He saw himself, the object himself must refer to the same person as the subject He. Personal datives are different: the personal dative pronoun not only can refer to the subject, it must refer to the subject.

Possible explanations for Principle B violations

Linguists have proposed a variety of solutions to the puzzle that personal datives present with respect to Principle B. Webelhuth and Dannenberg (2006) analyze personal datives as being similar to idioms because idioms, like personal datives, are often resistant to movement and often require coreference with the grammatical subject of the sentence in which they occur. Under this analysis, part of the idiomatic nature of personal datives is an exemption from Principle B.

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.

We did not "replace this pic" because it already relates to our topic!

Semantic properties

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 loves 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 for whom the cake was baked. In fact, in (14c), Kim may or may not even be the person for whom the cake was baked, whereas in (15) it is certain that Kim is the beneficiary of the cake-baking.

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 usage of the personal dative indicates that the subject becomes satisfied by the event denoted by the verb. By contrast, standard double object constructions like (15) serve a possessive (rather than satisfactive) role by denoting a change in possession between the source and the goal.

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

Updates: June 27, 2018 (Katie Martin)

Please cite this page as: Huang, Nick and Tom McCoy. 2011. Personal datives. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD). Updated by Katie Martin (2018).


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