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Can someone please explain the difference between "Do something to somebody" and "Do something for somebody." it seems to me that to do something to somebody carries a negative meaning, while to do something for someone always means something positive. Appreciate all comments.

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  • Too bad that Boris Badenov reciting "Do something to somebody quick" isn't on Youtube.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 7 '15 at 21:34
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Doing something 'to' somebody would imply that something was done to them directly, whereas to do something 'for' somebody would be on their behalf.

Example: To: I hit Matthew. For: I sent a birthday card to Matthew's mother from the both of us.

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  • Thanks for the response. Please refer to my follow-up query to the above two helpful users. Sep 8 '15 at 16:04
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As you suggest, "doing something for someone" often has positive connotations. "I did this for Simone", for instance, conveys the speaker's claim that he was acting in Simone's best interests. (Whether he was actually acting in her best interests is another matter.)

There are, however, exceptions. Consider for example

The wicked witch made a poisoned pie for the children."

The trap was set for the lion.


The connotations of "doing something to somebody" depend on who is doing what to whom. Consider these examples.

The dentist gave a novacaine injection to John.

The dentist gave a strychnine pill to John.

Martha said hello to me.

Martha said "I hope you die young!" to me.

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  • Who is your dentist? I am trying to imagine that scenario, and I get hung up on getting the body our of the chair and office.
    – ab2
    Sep 7 '15 at 22:50
  • ab2 Apparently you don't know a properly trained dentist.
    – DavidC
    Sep 7 '15 at 23:13
  • @Sydney Maples Thanks for the replies. Perhaps I did not make it clear that the focus of my query is on the relation between the verb "do" and the prepositions "to" and "for". Is there a difference between these two sentences: "Let's see what the government can do TO you" and "Let's see what the government can do FOR you"? Sep 8 '15 at 16:02
  • William Tan, In this case, your intuitions seem to be reliable. Whenever one speaks of an institution doing something to someone, it comes across as nefarious; when an institution does something for someone it is presumably for their benefit, or at least alleged to be.
    – DavidC
    Sep 8 '15 at 16:56
  • That settles it. Sep 9 '15 at 10:27
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As mentioned already, there is a positive connotation associated with doing something for somebody. However, this is because doing something for somebody often implies that they wanted it to happen to them in the first place, whereas doing something to somebody implies that you wanted it to happen to them, regardless of whether or not they enjoyed what you did.

Even in the earlier examples used, there is a difference between

The wicked witch made a poisoned pie for the children.

and

The wicked witch gave the poisoned pie to the children.

It is the latter case in which the children are directly affected in any negative way. The former case implies that the witch did something laborious, even, while the children remained unaffected. If the sentence were left alone without a follow-up, we would never know what happened to the pie, and would probably assume that nothing bad happened at all, and it was the witch that wasted her time (due to the underlying notion that she did something for someone else at her own expense). It wasn't until an action happened to the children (i.e. they took the pie from the witch) that the children were negatively affected.

Again, doing something to somebody is not always perceived in a positive light, because it represents what the doer wants to happen to the receiver. In the case of saying hello to somebody, we assume that this is a good thing, because we are unharmed by greetings and generally enjoy receiving them. But that greeting could have just as easily been a malicious one.

As another example, when you do something positive at your own expense, it generally is followed by a 'for'. This is represented in the simple fact that you do not say 'I did something bad for him', but you would say 'I did something bad to him'. On the other hand, you would typically say 'I did something good for him', whereas you wouldn't say 'I did something good to him.' Take the below example:

Alice cut the cake for Brad's wedding.

When you read that, you assume that there is a delicious cake that Alice is cutting a slice off for Brad and his friends to eat. Thus, Brad and company are able to eat the delicious cake. But what if this was not the intention? What if Brad had ordered a beautiful wedding cake for his future wife that his jealous ex-lover Alice was cutting into smithereens? It seems unlikely, based on the use of 'for' in the above sentence. Also consider the cognitive dissonance that results from this sentence:

Alice cut the cake for Brad's wedding. Then she threw it into the garbage.

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