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We would like to enlist your help in arbitrating this grammatical dilemma.

Given the question:

What does the door do?

Which of the following options is most correct as a response to the question?

  1. Close.
  2. Closes.

Please pick only from the given options and do not modify them in any way. (I have asked people in the past and they have responded with more-than-one-word answers. )

Please explain your answer. There are 20 dollars riding on the answer to this question.

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+1: I like how the question is being presented! :) –  RiMMER Jun 20 '11 at 7:38
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This is a non-question (though it has stimulated some interesting discussion). –  Colin Fine Jun 20 '11 at 12:00
    
I am tempted to answer: "Wú" –  JeffSahol Jun 20 '11 at 20:12
    
If you answer "close/closes" rather than "open/opens" to this question, you have just outed yourself as a closet pessimist. –  Peter Shor Jun 9 '12 at 0:43
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5 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

They are both correct: they elide the beginnings of different responses.

What does the door do? [What the door does is] close.

What does the door do? [The door] closes.

If you look at the verb be, you find that the former phrasing seems to be more productive and natural, if not necessarily more correct. Using the infinitive mirrors the structure of the question.

What does the Pope do? [What the Pope does is] be Catholic.

What does the Pope do? [The Pope] is Catholic.

I asked a question about this once that may be interesting.

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+1 nice answer. I think this nails it. I know the question asks for which is more correct, but to some extent that's like asking which is more correct out of "2+2=4" or "1+3=4": you can certainly prefer one or the other, and one may be more common, but you can hardly argue that either is wrong :) –  psmears Jun 20 '11 at 8:48
    
+1 Nice answer. I felt that close sounded more natural but couldn't say why. The example makes it clearer. –  Tragicomic Jun 20 '11 at 9:06
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What is "bes"? I've never heard anything like that before. –  Mitch Jun 20 '11 at 11:38
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So you are saying that using either one word answer is correct, but close is more natural because it mirrors the structure of the question, is that right? –  KitFox Jun 20 '11 at 12:07
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@Mitch: Read the question linked from this answer - it may make more sense after that :). The funny thing about that example is that, despite bes clearly being entirely nonstandard, it nonetheless sounds less unnatural (to me and others, at least) to say "What does the Pope do? Bes Catholic" than "...? Is Catholic" (though of course "...? Be Catholic" is superior to both). (That probably says more about how unnatural the "is" version is in this context than the other way round!) –  psmears Jun 20 '11 at 15:10
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1. Close.

I argue that it's grammatical (I will address whether it is the best of the two shortly) through the following evolution:

"What does the door do?" ⇒ "Close [does the door]." ⇒ "[The door does] close." ⇒ "Close."

This is a bit clunky, granted, compared to "The door closes." (which would lead to "Closes."), but grammatical nonetheless.

Regardless of the above, I think the shortened response "Close." is actually the best response because of this. The original question "What does the door do?" triggers in my mind a question-response pattern used often with children or in children's books.

  • — What does a horse do? — Gallop.
  • — What does a dolphin do? — Swim.
  • — What does a door do? — Open/close/swing.
  • — What does a phone do? — Ring.
  • — What does a policeman do? — Fight crime.

The verb or verb phrase becomes infinitive-like and bypasses any subject-predicate agreement in number. Not only is this most natural of the two choices (I argue), it is through its use itself grammatical (though specialized).

Even though this is a pattern used around children, it still feels valid in my mind for adult conversation because the question itself ("What does the door do?") is very simple and carries with it, regardless of speaker, a child-like and innocent tone that invokes this specialized grammar. I believe I've even seen this pattern of speech during game shows or trivia, where simple one or two word responses are all that are allowed.

I only compare "Close." with "Closes." as those were the only two options given. Though among those choices I argue in favor of "Close.", if other choices were allowed I'd instead argue that "It closes." or "The door closes." are most natural of all. But as it stands, it is important to remind that "It closes." is not the same response as "Closes.".

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The question asks for the "most correct" response, not the best one. Given that, isn't your choice of which elision to allow and which not to allow a bit arbitrary? –  user1579 Jun 20 '11 at 13:11
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I suspect this is one of those interesting cases of "competence vs performance" to put it in Chomskyan terms. If a native speaker looks at this on paper, they may well come to the conclusion that "Close" is the grammatical response (and I mean from a purely intuitive point of view, not from any 'prescriptive' point of view about what's "correct"). And I suspect that if you actually were able to take recordings of spontaneous answers to the question in real life, you may well find that what people actually say is "Closes".

For those not familiar with the phenomenon, similar things happen 'on the fringes' of grammar such as these pairs (where "on paper", our intuition tells us that only (a) is grammatical, but in practice many speakers would use (b)):

  • (a) The thing is that it's a bit expensive.

  • (b) The thing is is that it's a bit expensive.

  • (a) He's one of those people who is always there to help.

  • (b) He's one of those people who he's always there to help.

  • (a) Which of the barmen did you wonder whether would be serving tonight?

  • (b) Which of the barmen did you wonder whether he'd be serving tonight?

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Okay, but aren't those (b)s better punctuated as anacolutha, i.e. the thing is... is that it's a bit expensive, or the thing is—is that it's a bit expensive? There doesn't have to be a problem. –  Cerberus Jun 20 '11 at 20:26
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A similar question is the old joke:

Did you know Mr Patel is a Hindu!

What's a Hindu?

Lay Eggs

I have always told and heard the punchline as "Lay Eggs", and not "Lays Eggs", but a google search reveals more hits for Lays Eggs than Lay Eggs, which would suggest that both answers are OK.

Whenever I read the option 1/, I read it the wrong way (close as in near, not as in shut) and want to supplement it:

What does a door do?

Close, but no cigar.

and for that reason, if you really want to force me to choose, and don't allow objections like "a door is a passive object that responds to pushes and pulls" then I'm going with option 2/

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B) "Closes."

This is a pro-form: a substitute for an entire sentence, word, or phrase (pronouns are pro-forms for nouns or noun phrases). In this particular instance, the question-answer sequence appears, non-reduced, as:

What does the door do?

The door closes.

As the subject, the door, is understood via context, it can be left out, replacing the entire sentence. So when you answer with just "closes," you are actually saying, "The door closes."

Answer A is incorrect for the same reason: the non-reduced sentence, "The door close" is not a grammatically valid sentence.

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Actually I'd contend that both are valid responses: would you say "What does he do all day? Answers questions on EL&?U", or "...Answer..."? Only the second is grammatical to me (ecause the "answer" verb is coming in place of "do", and is therefore in the bare infinitive form). –  psmears Jun 20 '11 at 6:29
    
@psmears I would argue that it is not taking the place of do, but rather does what, because What does he do all day? is, prior to wh-movement, He does what all day. "Answer" would only be considered grammatical on a misparsing of the underlying structure. –  rintaun Jun 20 '11 at 6:35
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No, because when you answer a question you supply an answer that replaces the wh-word, not the verb to which the wh-word is the object: "What did he eat yesterday? Potatoes", not "*Ate potatoes" or "*eat potatoes". Would you really say "What on earth does he do with all his money? Throws it away?" Or would you say "...Throw...?". –  psmears Jun 20 '11 at 8:41
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