The Grammarphobia Blog

Hand me the wellies, Jeeves

Q: My British-born boss corrected me for preparing a letter that said “I am writing you” instead of “I am writing to you.” He sniffed that dropping the preposition “to” in the first example was an Americanism and bad English. Is there a difference between UK and US English on this? Help!

A: WELL! What a snippy comment! And wrong besides.

This is not bad English. It’s standard American English (which is why my husband and I invite readers of our website to “Write us”), and it was once standard British English too. Here’s the story.

In a sentence like “Write me a poem” or “Write your mother a letter,” the preposition is understood and is properly omitted in both British and American English. In fact, people would never say “Write for me a poem” or “Write to your mother a letter.”

Several verbs, including “hand,” “pass,” “give, “offer,” “send,” and “write,” are commonly used without prepositions when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object (like “me” and “your mother” in the sentences above).

However, if the direct object comes first (“a poem,” “a letter”), the preposition is used: “Write a poem for me,” and “Write a letter to your mother.”

Here are a few more examples: “Pass Dad the salt,” but “Pass the salt to Dad.” … “Hand me the hammer,” but “Hand the hammer to me.” … “Offer her tea,” but “Offer tea to her.” … “Give them a break,” but “Give a break to them.” … “He left her his fortune,” but “He left his fortune to her.”

In the case of “write,” it’s long been correct English to drop the preposition even if the only object is an indirect object, as in “Write me when you can” or “Write your parents at least once a week.” (In this respect, we use “write” in much the same way that we use “call.”)

As for your British-born critic, he is right in one respect. A sentence like “Have you written your mother?” or “Write me,” once standard English on both sides of the Atlantic, is now frowned upon in the UK though it’s still fine in the US.

Only when both direct and indirect objects are present – as in “Have you written your mother a thank-you note?” or “Write me a letter” – do British speakers today omit the preposition.

Under its entry for “write,” The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains that preposition-dropping in Britain “is now in restricted use unless accompanied by a second (direct) object, as in I shall write you a letter as soon as I land in Borneo.”

“In old-fashioned commercial correspondence,” the usage manual adds, “the types We wrote you yesterday; Please write us at your convenience were often used, but nowadays to would normally be inserted before you and us.”

And this old British usage wasn’t limited to commercial writing, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The 18th century Scottish clergyman and poet Thomas Blacklock, for instance, used it in a these lines from 1746: “Pray write me soon, to let me see / How much superior you can be / To doctors in divinity.”

In other words, the American use of “write” isn’t incorrect – it’s old-fashioned!

Interestingly, some speakers in the UK colloquially say “Give it me” (meaning “Give it to me”), omitting the preposition after the direct object, which Americans seldom do. We might say “Give me it” or “Give me that,” but we’d never drop the preposition in “Give it to me.”

I hope this takes away the sting, even if just a bit.

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