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I learned the following sentence from 100 Greatest Science Discoveries of All Time by Kendall Haven:

Marie Curie's studies rank as one of the great turning points of science. Physics after Curie was completely different than before and focused on the undiscovered subatomic world. She cracked open a door that penetrated inside the atom and has led to most of the greatest advances of twentieth-century physics.

I don't understand the sentence in bold. Why can two verbs, "cracked" and "open", be put together in this sentence? Or do I misunderstand the part of the speech here?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

It's not two verbs, cracked and open. It's one phrasal verb, crack open. Open is the particle (open can be an adjective and an adverb, as well as a verb), and crack is the verb.

To crack means to make a crack, or opening, in something, which can be literal, like crack an egg, or figurative, like crack the books (which means study) or crack another bottle of scotch, which means to open a sealed bottle.

The phrasal verb crack open means to open something sealed (like a door) a very small amount ("only a crack"), so that one can see inside. It refers to the very beginning of an opening.

In this case, it's metaphoric, and refers to the first "opening" of scientific knowledge of the atom, which was due to Curie's work.

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I think it means that she forced the door open rather than "opened the door a little bit". Cracking open a bottle or cracking a safe doesn't mean "open up a crack" it means force the thing wide open. Likewise cracking an egg is to break it. It's clear from the context that the author believes the work was a momentous, even violent act of scientific discovery. –  z7sg Ѫ Feb 20 '12 at 17:50
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@z7sg Ѫ: I don't think so. I'd hazard a guess that almost every one of 14500 instances of "cracked the door open" are in a stealthy, inquisitive context. Whereas it's possible the stealthy connotation is irrelevant in OP's example, I think John is on the money with both the inquisitive, so one can see inside, and first opening connotations. I don't really see safe-cracking as an important reference here (but a bottle of fine cognac, maybe! :) –  FumbleFingers Feb 20 '12 at 18:38
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Yes, you crack open a door (open it just a little bit) to sneak a peek, or have a secret listen to what's going on on the other side of the dorr. –  Wayfaring Stranger Feb 20 '12 at 19:58
    
Hmm, is "cracked open a door" the same as "cracked a door open"? That may be more understandable. –  Jack Feb 20 '12 at 22:18
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Yes. It's a phrasal verb, so Particle Shift is optional with noun objects and obligatory with pronoun objects (i.e, *He cracked open it is ungrammatical). –  John Lawler Feb 20 '12 at 22:29
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