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When I call the buzzer outside my girlfriend's flat, she sometimes says *"I'll open you the door". I correct this to "I'll open the door for you".

I've never heard a native speaker say it the first way, which is why I think it's wrong. But I can't explain why.

There is a pattern in lots of English phrases that would suggest both are correct. A few common examples:

  1. Give the keys to me before you goGive me the keys before you go

  2. I'll buy a coffee for you at the cafeI'll buy you a coffee at the cafe

  3. We sent a text to Martin on his birthdayWe sent Martin a text on his birthday

The left-hand side is more formal, and the right-hand side is more common in everyday speech.

What do you call this pattern?

What makes the 'open-the-door' sentence an exception?

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Come to that, how come it's always "cry me a river", not "cry a river for me"? –  FumbleFingers Nov 7 '12 at 22:07
First thought: It's a bit mean, calling someone a door. Though I guess it could be considered foreplay? –  Annan Nov 8 '12 at 0:37
@Annan "You make a better door than a window!" my gran would say if you blocked her view of the TV. –  Iain Elder Nov 8 '12 at 0:49
Is English not your girlfriend's native language by any chance? Some European languages prefer this form over the other, for instance in French you usually say "I'll open you the door" ("Je t'ouvrirai/vais t'ouvrir la porte") this might explain it. Being natively french, I sometimes do similar subtle mistakes. –  Thomas Nov 8 '12 at 1:44
Is it actually idiomatic to say "call the buzzer"? Wouldn't you rather "sound the buzzer" or something like that? –  Tim Pietzcker Nov 8 '12 at 9:56

4 Answers 4

up vote 90 down vote accepted

The answer to the presenting question is:

  • *I'll open you the door.

is ungrammatical because you won't wind up owning the door by virtue of my opening it.

Ordinary bitransitive verbs of transfer (tell, throw, bring, hand, pass, send, etc.), where the direct object (the trajector, semantically) is transferred from the subject (the source) to the indirect object (the goal), normally are subject to the Dative Alternation:

  • I'll tell/throw/bring/hand/pass/send the answer to him.
  • I'll tell/throw/bring/hand/pass/send him the answer.

Besides these, however, there's also a Benefactive construction, which uses for instead of to, and identifies someone for whose benefit something is done. This can be added to any sentence, transitive or intransitive. Here we discuss only the transitives:

  • I'll open the door for you. (Note -- you don't wind up with the door)
  • I'll dig a clam for you. (Note -- you do wind up with the clam)
  • I'll fix the car for you. (Note -- you don't wind up with the car)
  • I'll fix a meal for you. (Note -- you do wind up with the meal)

In precisely those situations where the Benefactive object of for ends up possessing the direct object, the sentences can undergo Dative; in those cases where they don't, they can't.

  • *I'll open you the door.
  • I'll dig you a clam.
  • *I'll fix you the car.
  • I'll fix you a meal.

The last two sentences show that this extension of Dative to Benefactive is not governed by the verb used (fix in both cases), but by the intended meaning of the clause, including idioms, presuppositions, and metaphors.

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Yes, one of those. –  John Lawler Nov 8 '12 at 0:09
or the other ;-) –  mcalex Nov 8 '12 at 0:44
Well, as I think my answer shows, there's a huge difference between the average UK and US levels of flexibility about what "benefactive" objects can validly accept what "benefits" without strings or prepositions. So far as I'm concerned, OP's girlfriend has "given" him (vicarious) control of the entrydoor, so it's fine by me. I don't even really have much of a problem with "Johnny! Open me the door for Aunt Ethel!" –  FumbleFingers Nov 8 '12 at 1:41
Interesting: I'll fix the car for you, you don't end up with the car, I'll fix a car for you, you do end up with a car. –  gerrit Nov 8 '12 at 15:10
Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1839: “No, madam; well you said the God you serve will open you a path for deliverance.” And apparently there is 2010 poetry collection called Let Me Open You a Swan. Still, it seems easier to open you a beer than a stage act. –  tchrist Nov 9 '12 at 4:07

Open is a transitive verb, not ditransitive, so it only takes one object, e.g. door.

I will open the door - one object (door)

* I will open you the door - two objects (you, door)

The second sentence seems weird because open doesn't take two objects.

A ditransitive verb takes two objects. For example, give can be ditransitive:

I gave you the money - two objects (you, money)

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That's the word! Most verbs aren't ditransitive. I'll delete my answer in favour of yours. But I'm not sure that's the whole story. Assuming we don't classify to cash as a ditransitive verb, how come we're happier with "Can you cash me a cheque?" than we are with "Can you open me the door?". –  FumbleFingers Nov 7 '12 at 21:14
@F Perhaps that sentence indicates that to cash is ditransitive. –  Andrew Leach Nov 7 '12 at 21:25
@FumbleFingers I can't explain why open doesn't take another object beyond knowing that it doesn't. A foible of only being a native speaker, I suppose. –  Matt E. Эллен Nov 7 '12 at 21:26
@FumbleFingers: I don't think I find "Can you cash me a check?" any more grammatical than *"Can you open me the door?" (Although Google Ngrams seems to disagree with this.) –  Peter Shor Nov 7 '12 at 21:37
open doesn't take two objects. Sounds so much like programming! –  Anirudh Ramanathan Nov 9 '12 at 10:34

Open you the door isn't the exception at all. Most verbs capable of having both a direct and an indirect object don't readily accept the possibility of just specifying both objects without using any prepositions (but if/when you can do that, you always have to put the "indirect object" first).

There's a significant US/UK divide here, as illustrated by these Google Books results...

American usage: cash a check for me" (954), cash me a check (82).

British usage: cash a cheque for me (242), cash me a cheque (305).

As a Brit, I don't have any real problem with OP's exact usage and context, though I'm aware some people would find it anywhere between "slightly odd" and "totally ungrammatical". Taking it a bit further though, probably almost everyone would say that...

**"Look who's in the driveway, Johnny! Go and open Auntie Ethel the door!"*

...is "totally unacceptable".

EDIT: I don't really disagree with John Lawler's observation that the "ditransitive, prepositionless" dative alternation construction largely turns on whether the beneficiary ends up possessing the direct object. But it's not a hard-and-fast rule - particularly, I feel, in BrE.

As this source says, the above intended reception constraint [beneficiary ends up possessing object] comes with a certain amount of inherent fuzziness. And to illustrate that fuzziness, it gives actual "acceptability" figures for a few "marginal" constructions...

a: Could you iron me these shirts? [76%]
b: Could you wash me the dishes? [54%]
c: Could you clean me the windows? [47%]
d. Could you open me the door? [25%]

My own feeling is that this form is becoming more common (those figures were collected almost 40 years ago), and that it's more likely when the beneficiary is a pronoun (particularly, me). I'd be prepared to bet that if the above survey were repeated today, b above would score higher than 54%, but "Could you wash Mum the dishes?" would score significantly less.

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As an American I can say that 'cash me a check' and 'cash a check for me' actually sound like 2 completely different phrases with entirely different meanings. In fact they sound so different its hard to even except that your comparing them. 'Cash a check for me' wouldn't be used without another subject in the sentance, such as "Molly is going to cash a check for me", or "Will you cash a check for me?". Where as 'cash me a check' has one subject, yourself. On top of having only one subject its also colloquial, and not acceptable for standard use. –  ryan Nov 8 '12 at 20:57
@ryan: No offence, but your spelling/orthography is a bit weak! I know that doesn't necessarily mean you don't have an ear for language - but it's hardly a plus point, so I don't know I'd give much credibility to your assessment of "colloquiality". Anyway, perhaps you hadn't realised that my four "cheque" examples above are just text fragments from the hundreds of complete sentences as linked to in Google Books. –  FumbleFingers Nov 8 '12 at 21:39
@ryan: Sorry mate, but I'm also "a programmer, not a English professor". It's not a pissing contest, so I'm not going to start listing all the other errors in your text (but trust me, there are quite a few! :) –  FumbleFingers Nov 8 '12 at 22:02
@ryan Being an English professor is no more about knowing how to spell things correctly and bothering to do so than being a math professor is about counting on your fingers without getting lost on your way from one to ten. It is supremely insulting to the profession of computer programming to suggest that those who practice it can’t spell, or shouldn’t be expected to. Indeed, it is more important for them than in many professions, since a misspelled identifier will often ruin your program. There is never any excuse for laziness or sloppiness. Being a programmer is no alibi for carelessness. –  tchrist Nov 9 '12 at 12:42
@John Lawler In the light of Collemann's "acceptability" figures for a few "marginal" constructions (which I admit I wouldn't mention if I didn't feel they reflected what is actually going on), would it be fair to tone down the rule 'In precisely those situations where the Benefactive object of for ends up possessing the direct object, the sentences can undergo Dative; in those cases where they don't, they can't'? –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 12 '14 at 7:52

As you noticed, many verbs can take an indirect object, and can also express the indirect object with to or for. But there is no rule that anything expressed with to or for must be convertible to an indirect object, and therefore "open the door" is not an exception to the rule.

There are plenty of examples of verbs that work this way:

Break a leg for me != Break me a leg.

I bought balloons for the party != I bought the party balloons.

They brought the discrepancy to the director's attention != They brought the director's attention the discrepancy.

There's nothing special about open that prevents it from taking an indirect object; if anything, the "special" verbs are the ones that do take the indirect object.

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Your second example sounds weird because it's a garden-path sentence: party balloon is a type of balloon. But both I bought drinks for my friend and I bought my friend drinks sound fine to me. –  Iain Elder Nov 7 '12 at 21:35
It also depends on whether you parse "party" as "group of people" or "festive event". –  MSalters Nov 8 '12 at 15:47
Even though someone can actually be responsible for a discrepancy (and ipso facto be in possession of said discrepancy, thus validating the benefactive construction in theory), "They brought the director's attention the discrepancy" just sounds really odd and is certainly something I could never imagine myself (a native speaker) nor any of my native English-speaking friends saying. –  user25349 Mar 20 '13 at 3:08

protected by tchrist Mar 1 at 19:37

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