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Which sentence is correct?

I can't get my toolbox open.
I can't get my toolbox to open.

Are they both correct?

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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted
  1. I can't get my toolbox open.

  2. I can't get my toolbox to open.

I agree with FumbleFingers that the following are correct paraphrases of the originals:

  1. I can't put my toolbox in the state of being opened.

  2. I can't make my toolbox go through the action of opening.

But I think the grammatical difference between them does not imply a personal vs. impersonal toolbox. The second can be just as passive on the toolbox's part. I replaced "perform" with "go through" to emphasize the passivity of the toolbox.

In short, they are both equally appropriate ways of saying the same thing, though the second is less common, and as FumbleFingers remarks below, can indicate more frustration.

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It's a tricky one to fully deconstruct, and I don't doubt that for many speakers the use of the infinitive may not even be parsed in a way that implies "toolbox as agent". Nevertheless, I believe that would be the normal parsing for most people if they considered the issue in any detail. And I believe that as a consequence, OP's second form slightly implies greater frustration with the toolbox. And is less commonly used. NGram shows nothing for get the safe to open, but plenty for the same without "to". –  FumbleFingers Jul 9 '11 at 12:59
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They're both grammatically valid, but the first is much to be preferred unless you want to 'personify' the toolbox as fighting back against your efforts to open it, which may be considered a bit extreme in most cases.

(1) can be paraphrased as I can't put my toolbox in the state of being opened.

(2) can be paraphrased as I can't make my toolbox perform the action of opening.

Note that in the first case the toolbox is just a passive object. In the second, it's a recalcitrant object that actively refuses to open itself despite your best efforts at persuasion.

We commonly say The door opened. Maybe an unnamed person opened it. Or the wind. Or maybe it just fell open. But toolboxes generally don't just open themselves, even figuratively. So the second example would be slightly colourful/informal/exaggerated/humorous metaphoric usage.

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It's probably worthwhile noting that, depending on context, you may wish to confer some responsibility onto the subject by deliberately using the second option. It may be a particularly petulant toolbox after all. –  Brendon Jul 9 '11 at 2:04
    
@Brendon: That's a very good point. In fact, the clear implication of the second form is that the toolbox is being presented as an awkward SOB with a defiant mind of its own. I should add that to the answer, ty. –  FumbleFingers Jul 9 '11 at 2:22
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I think you're going way overboard trying to suggest that using the infinitive is going to "personify" the toolbox. Is it personifying a door to say you're trying to get it to close? "Hey, the door won't close." Do you see a Mr. Door standing there, with a cartoon smile and cartoon eyes, and cartoon arms defiantly crossed? –  Robusto Jul 9 '11 at 3:03
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@Fumble: I see no more personification in the one than in the other. Are you suggesting that toolboxes are more inherently "personifiable" (for want of a better word) than doors? How about cars? "My car won't start." Is that personification? –  Robusto Jul 9 '11 at 3:16
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I'm with @Robusto on this - to me it doesn't really imply personification either: I might also say I can't get this tap (faucet) to turn, or I can't get this pen to write, with no implication of either having a personality, or even being especially active :) –  psmears Jul 9 '11 at 7:25
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They are both correct.

Open in the first example is acting as an adjective, and is describing the state of your toolbox, which will not become opened.

Open in the second example is part of an infinitive, and describes the action of the toolbox.

But in this case, they both mean the same.

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there's no such thing as an adjectivial infinitive. It's just that this infinitive "modifies" the toolbox. I suppose I really ought to remove it to be clearer. –  Thursagen Jul 9 '11 at 2:00
    
Yes, I think it's 'just' an infinitive. Crucially, implying an action to be performed by the toolbox. Not to it, which curiously enough is the sense of the version that doesn't include the word "to"! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 9 '11 at 2:18
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