Q: I direct my Philosophy of Ethics students to your page about the distinction between morals and ethics. I was wondering about Matthew 7:7, specifically the object: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” Why isn’t it “given to you”?
A: It depends on which translation of Matthew 7:7 you’re looking at. Some do say “given to you.” However, the passage in the earliest Old English translation of the Gospels doesn’t use either “given you” or “given to you.”
This is the wording in the Wessex Gospels, copied around 1175 in a West Saxon dialect of Old English and believed to date from the late 10th century: “Byddeð. & eow beoð ge-seald” (“Biddeth, and you shall be given”).
And here’s an archaic spelling of “given to you” in the Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English in the 1380s under the direction of the theologian John Wycliffe:
“Axe ȝe, and it ſhal be ȝouen to ȝou” (“Ask ye, and it shall be given to you”). From Maþeu, Capitulum VII (Matthew, Chapter 7).
The King James Version of 1611 has an early Modern English form of the passage you’re familiar with (“Aske, and it shalbe giuen you”), while the New King James Version of 1982 has a contemporary update (“Ask, and it will be given to you”).
The two clauses, “it shall be given you” and “it shall be given to you” mean the same thing semantically but differ grammatically. In the first clause, “you” is an indirect object; in the second, “to you” is a prepositional phrase that serves a similar purpose.
As we’ve said many times before on the blog, the use of prepositions is highly idiomatic in English and has varied widely over the years. At times, one form or another may be more common in American than in British usage, or vice versa.
In contemporary English, for example, one would usually say “give it to you” or “give you it.” However, “give it you” is often heard in British English, though the usage is sometimes described as informal or nonstandard.
In a 2009 post, we discuss the use of prepositional phrases and objects with “give,” “write,” “pass,” and several other verbs.
These verbs are now commonly used without prepositional phrases when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object (like “me” in “give me the book” or “write me a letter”).
But if a direct object (“the book” or “a letter”) comes first, a prepositional phrase is used (“Give the book to me” or “Write a letter to me”).
The use of the verb “write” differs in the US and the UK when the only object is an indirect object, as in “Have you written your mother?” or “Write me.” That usage, once standard on both sides of the Atlantic, is now frowned upon in the UK though still fine in the US.
Only when both objects are present and the indirect object comes first (as in “Have you written your mother a thank-you note?” or “Write me a letter”) do British speakers omit the preposition now.