In the Greek grammatical tradition there are two constructions which masquerade under the name “double accusative.” The reason they get this name is obvious. Usually, a verb only has one accusative noun that goes with it in its clause. Sometimes two show up. Thus, “double accusative.” While they both get classed under the same category, these constructions differ from each other in an important way. To describe how, let’s first discuss an important notion for describing how verbs work: argument structure.

Argument Structure: verbs are argumentative

Argument structure, also called valency, is a way of categorizing how verbs work. For a verb to be complete it requires certain “arguments.” The best way to get what this means is by example:

  • I was running.
  • The dog ate the homework.
  • I gave my teacher the homework.

Here we have three different verbs, each taking a different number of arguments. Most verbs—in English and in Greek—take at least one argument, called the subject. In (1) the verb “to run” requires only one argument to make a grammatically complete predication. In (2) the verb “to eat” requires two arguments, an eater and something being eaten. The verb “to give” in (3) is one of the rare verbs which requires three arguments: a giver, a thing given, and a recipient.

You may quickly realize that there are contexts where “to eat” or “to give” appear with one less argument than they have here. Sometimes context is strong enough to allow omission of an argument within the clause the verb is in. In such cases, we still consider these verbs to have the same number of arguments. The number of arguments is related to the situations they describe in reality. The situation of eating always requires that something is eating and something is being eaten. Whether both are expressed or not in all cases depends on the inner-workings of a language. This is an important concept since Greek is much freer with omitting arguments than English.

One last note here is that when a sentence is turned into a passive, it loses an argument. This explains why you can’t turn “to run” into a passive,[1] but the other two can be:

  • *Was running (by me).
  • The homework was eaten (by the dog).
  • The homework was given to my teacher (by me).

I have added the optional agent expression, called an oblique argument, in (2) and (3). It can freely be omitted or present—in both English and Greek.

With this brief primer on arguments, the difference in “double accusatives” becomes easier to discuss.

Will the real double accusative please step forward?

The two constructions which are called double accusatives differ from one another in terms of their argument structure. The true double accusative is when a verb has two arguments which are accusative. What I affectionately call the fake double accusative is when a verb has only one accusative argument and the second accusative is doing something else. First, the true double accusative.

True double accusative

Several Greek verbs take two arguments in the accusative case (this is usually called “double accusative of person and thing” in NT grammars). We can call these Argument 2 (traditionally direct object) and Argument 3 (traditionally complement). Argument 1 is the subject. The syntax is such that the accusative case fills two argument slots of the verb:

Arg 1 (subject) + Verb + Arg 2 (acc. object) + Arg. 3 (acc. complement).

Here are a couple Greek examples:

  • John 14.26: Arg 1ἐκεῖνος Arg 2ὑμᾶς διδάξει Arg 3πάντα. (“He will teach you everything”)
  • Matt 21.24: ἐρωτήσω Arg 2ὑμᾶς Arg 1κἀγὼ Arg 3λόγον ἕνα (“And I will ask you a question”)

Verbs that can have a true double accusative (can is key; they do not have to) are limited to verbs indicating a few different semantic concepts. Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 182), groups the NT double accusatives into the following four classes (see also Robertson’s more expansive and less well-ordered presentation in pages 482-84 of Grammar of New Testament Greek in Light of Historical Research):

  • teaching, reminding
  • clothing, anointing
  • inquiring, asking
  • other types of causative ideas

Fake double accusative

The “fake double accusative” differs from the “true” double accusative in that the second accusative is not an argument of the verb; rather, an accusative predicate to the accusative direct object (Robertson calls it the predicate accusative and specifies that it is really a type of apposition, 480). In other words, it is a predicate compliment to the direct object, making a predication about the accusative direct object:

Arg 1 (subject) + Verb + Arg 2 (acc. object) + complement to Arg 2 in acc.

Think of it as an embedded predicate nominative construction. There are two accusatives in the clause, but the two accusatives work together like a subject and predicate nominative, or like a noun and an appositional phrase.

Here are some Greek examples (in both these the subject argument is only evident in the verb):

  • John 15.15: οὐκέτι λέγω Arg 2ὑμᾶς predicate accusativeδούλους (“No longer do I call you slaves”)
  • Phil 3.7: Arg 2ταῦτα ἥγημαι διὰ τὸν Χριστὸν predicate accusativeζημίαν (“I consider these things as/to be loss on account of Christ”)

Only a limited set of verbs can have the “fake double accusative.”

The passivization test

On the surface, these two constructions look rather similar, it is true. However, their difference becomes apparent when they are passivized. Here it is clear that the constructions fundamentally differ from each other.

True double accusative: Passive version

When the true double accusative appears as a passive, the Argument 2/Accusative direct object becomes the subject of the passive verb (nominative case) and the Argument 3/Accusative complement stays in the accusative case:

  • Active, 3 arguments: (sub)arg 1 verb + acc objarg 2 + acc complementarg 3
  • Passive, 2 arguments: (sub)Arg1 + verb + acc complementArg2

There are not any active and passive pairs of these in the NT, so far as I am aware (haven’t looked all that hard, so there might be), but here is one example of a passive:

  • Col 1.9: ἵνα πληρωθῆτε τὴν ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ (“so that you be filled with the knowledge of his will”)

An active version of this would read something like as follows, showing two accusative arguments:

  • ἵνα πληρώσῃ Arg 2ὑμᾶς Arg 3τὴν ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ (“so that he fill you with the knowledge of his will”)

Such a formulation would require specifying who the agent doing the filling is, which Paul leaves unspecified in the text. The point to note is that in the active version “you” is the direct object (Argument 2), while in the passive version it is the subject. The accusative complement (Argument 3) stays in the accusative in both active and passive formations.

Fake double accusative

The fake double accusative shows its true colors when passivized. It ends up with zero accusative arguments. The original accusative Argument 2/object becomes the subject in the nominative case. Since the second accusative is a predicate compliment of Argument 2, it changes along with it to a nominative:

  • Active, 2 arguments: (sub)arg 1 + verb + acc objarg 2 + acc predicative complement
  • Passive, 1 argument: (sub)Arg1 + nom predicative complement + verb

We have a pair of examples from Luke using καλέω which nicely illustrate the way that this construction changes when passivized. Here I provide a translation of each attempting to illustrate the point at issue in Greek grammar:

  • Luke 1.13 καὶ καλέσεις Arg 2τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Acc. predicate complementἸωάννην (“And you will call his name as John”)
  • Luke 2.21 καὶ ἐκλήθη subjectτὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Nom predicate complementἸησοῦς (“And his name, namely Jesus, will be called”)

Note that we move from two accusatives to two nominatives. This is because the second accusative is not an argument of the verb, but a predicate/appositional accusative to Argument 2. Since Argument 2 is accusative in an active sentence, actives sentences of this type have two accusatives visible. Once the sentence is passive, the “2nd accusative” becomes a “2nd nominative,” still serving as predicate to the now subject.

Arguments are confusing, until they aren’t

Since Greek grammars traditionally do not talk about verbs in terms of argument structure, the above explanation probably sounds more confusing than any other way of putting things already in a grammar. Fair enough. Argument structure is, though, an elegant way to quickly and concisely summarize different ways that verbs behave which could be a major asset in the long haul to the way we talk about and write about verbs. I dream of a lexicon someday, or at least a NT grammar, which consistently makes use of such ways of talking about how verbs work. And while I am entertaining wishful thinking, it would be great if these were open source or done by a team so we don’t have to wait forever for them to appear, and free (at least cheap would be nice).

Like any other way of talking about language, it is only confusing until you understand it, at which point it turns out to be very useful.

[1] This is true of “to run” in the sense I have used it here. If used as a phrasal verb, such as “to run a race,” it can be passivized into ‘a race was run,’ but that is a different valency usage of the verb “to run” than being used here.