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I've been trying to learn all the rules involving particles and もらう in detail for a long time.

Until the other day, I thought に and から were completely interchangeable for もらう, as in the following examples:

お父さんからプレゼントをもらった。

お父さんにプレゼントをもらった。

but recently I've come across this interesting case:

プレゼントは私に彼がもらう (very unnatural)

プレゼントを私にもらうのは彼だ (okay but から is better)

私にもらったプレゼント (less unnatural)

プレゼントを彼が私からもらう (natural?)

プレゼントを彼が私にもらう (natural?)

I've been offered two explanations that I've had trouble understanding. One is that the further に is from the verb, the more ambiguous it becomes and the more acceptable から becomes. And two, that it has something to do with the objectivity of the statement.

So I have five questions:

  1. Is there some sort of concise grammar rule or explanation I can refer to?

  2. in what way, if any, does に create ambiguity or become confusing for listeners?

  3. are there any situations where に would be natural but から wouldn't be?

  4. how complicated does the picture get when you put もらう into passive and/or causative, like もらわれる?

  5. does this situation apply to the other verbs with this same aspect: 聞く (as in to hear from), 借りる and 習う? Actually while we're at it, let's put a subquestion:

5b) are there any other verbs besides these four where に means から?

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  • Anecdotally, から feels more colloquial than に but not more or less correct/natural. – JansthcirlU May 21 at 15:47
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In my explanation below, I took the liberty of swapping 私 and 彼 to eliminate the underlying unnaturalness I saw in your examples.

The most matter-of-fact sentence to describe the act of me receiving a gift from him would be:

私は彼にプレゼントをもらう。

The sentence still sounds natural after に is replaced with から, although it might sound a bit colloquial to some.

私は彼からプレゼントをもらう。

Depending on the context, however, the second sentence could be understood as someone else’s gift for the speaker being handed by him to her. This interpretation is not completely impossible from the first sentence with に but much less likely because of the stronger collocation of 〜にもらう.

彼にもらったプレゼント and 彼からもらったプレゼント are simply noun phrases that describe the gift thus received and inherit the same nuances.

In the following sentences, に and から are no farther from the verb than they are in the base sentences above.

プレゼントは彼に私がもらう。

プレゼントは彼から私がもらう。

プレゼントを彼にもらうのは私だ。

プレゼントを彼からもらうのは私だ。

プレゼントを私が彼にもらう。

プレゼントを私が彼からもらう。

They all seem to have the same nuances but nothing additional. If some of them sound unnatural, they do regardless of に or から.

To test the first of the two explanations that trouble you, we would have to separate に and から farther from the verb.

Let’s look at the following pair.

彼に私はプレゼントをもらう。

彼から私はプレゼントをもらう。

I don't find either one less natural or more ambiguous than the other.

However, ambiguity could arise if the object of the verb is modified by an adjective or a clause.

彼にぴったりな指輪をもらう。(ambiguous)

彼からぴったりな指輪をもらう。(less ambibuous)

In the first sentence, the ring might be just his size, not hers.

The farther に is from the verb, the more the chances of it inadvertently getting bound with another word. The same can be said about から but に has many more potential partners. I suppose this is what the first explanation is about.

から could sound awkward if another から appears before もらう.

私は彼に故郷から送られてきた野菜をもらう。(ambiguous but less awkward)

私は彼から故郷から送られてきた野菜をもらう。(awkward)

Using もらう in the passive or causative form would add to the confusion because に plays a different role in those constructions.

私は彼女に彼にプレゼントをもらわれる/もらわせる。(not really ambiguous but awkward)

私は彼女に彼からプレゼントをもらわれる/もらわせる。(less awkward)

I think the same general rule applies to 聞く, 借りる, and 習う. The first might be used more often with から than the other two precisely because of the ambiguity of 彼に聞く; it can also mean “to ask him”.

To me, に sounds much more natural than から when used with compound verbs such as 見せてもらう, 教えてもらう, 貸してもらう, etc.

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