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Ok, so I was studying some Japanese phrases when this showed up: 新しい 机 を 買って もらいました。

The translation provided in the source material is: "They bought me a new desk"

What I don't understand, however, is the verb placement. From what I can perceive, the te-form in the 買う is used to connect it with the verb もらう. How do I know which is the subject for each verb? I mean, how do I distinguish that 買って's subject is "they" and that もらう's subject is "me"?

How do I know if this phrase means "They bought me a new desk" instead of "I bought and received a new desk"?

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Whenever you use もらう, it always means to receive from someone else. It is unusual to use もらう for anything you receive from yourself:

 私は自分からこのケーキをもらった。 "I got this cake from me." <-- this sounds crazy

Moreover, it's odd to use もらう for getting or receiving things from stuff that isn't willingly or consciously giving it to you:

ジョンさんは、棚から千円もらった。 "John received one thousand yen from the shelf." <-- crazy, shelves can't give people stuff

Basically, もらう is the reciprocal form of くれる or あげる, so that the participants and viewpoint are switched. View もらう as though it's a rewording of あげる or くれる:

彼が 武田さんに 新しいコートを 買ってあげました "He bought Mr. Takeda a new coat."

武田さんが 彼に 新しいコートを 買ってもらいました "He bought Mr. Takeda a new coat."

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    I see, so it is basically just a specification from the verb もらう itself. Thank you for the answer, that pretty much clarifies it. – test Dec 24 '14 at 12:50
  • Glad I could help. – YsAdamsson Dec 24 '14 at 12:51
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    No one would say that last sentence. – l'électeur Dec 24 '14 at 13:10
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    Usually it is interpreted as an auxiliary verb, literally I received (the favour of) getting bought a desk.. But I wonder, could it possibly (=twisting words) be taken as a full verb in the sense of「新しい机を買って(、店員さんからその机を)もらった。」? – blutorange Dec 24 '14 at 13:24
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    @YsAdamsson ボールを選んでもらった "I picked a ball and received it", doesn't make much sense. Almost all natives will take it as "(someone) picked a ball for me". If I want to say "I picked a ball and received it" I will probably go with "ボールを選んで(から)受け取った" – BurakUeda Dec 25 '14 at 8:07

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