Is this usage of by itself grammatical? I know it's OK in the following sentences:

Will the dog be safe left in the car by itself? The door seemed to open all by itself. The computer shuts off by itself if you don't use it. The house stood by itself at the end of the street.

But in all these cases we've got a subject doing something by itself whereas in our sentence by itself refers to it which is not a subject but a direct object. Shouldn't it be rephrased: It cannot be drunk by itself or It cannot be being drunk by itself?

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    I disagree with "in all these cases we've got a subject doing something". In the first case "Will it be safe to leave the dog in the car by itself" clearly makes the dog the object. The dog is not doing anything, you are. Aug 20 '17 at 8:07
  • Yes, I saw that, but anyway the dog is a subject of the passive construction, so in a sense it's doing the being a subject of the passive construction ))) Aug 20 '17 at 8:14
  • The title phrasing is fine, and so is your first suggestion, but not It cannot be being drunk by itself. Aug 20 '17 at 8:19
  • I agree it seems rather awkward. Aug 20 '17 at 8:24

The four examples you give of by itself, divide into two pairs.

The first and last are the same idiom, and the second and third are the same.

So if I say "The dog/house was by itself", it means it was alone. "By itself" is another term for "alone".

"The door opened by itself" means that it had no assistance from any person or thing in opening. Again "by itself" means "alone".

Hence by itself (alone) is simply an adverbial phrase describing how the dog was, or how the door opened.

  • I'm quite aware of these two meanings. My question is about a phrasing "X + transitive verb + direct object + by itself". Is it OK to say, for example, You can't eat it by itself, it requires some ingredients to be added? It sounds a bit odd to me, I'd put it as It can't be eaten by itself, it requires... and so on. Aug 20 '17 at 14:17
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    @MvLog Both "You can't eat it by itself" and "It can't be eaten by itself" are idiomatic. Both are in everyday use and mean the same thing.
    – WS2
    Aug 20 '17 at 14:21
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    I suppose by default one would understand You can't be married by yourself as meaning that you need at least one other person to whom you can get married. But even though none of those instances in Google Books relate to the possible alternative interpretation, I'm sure somebody somewhere would have used this phrasing with the meaning You can't conduct your own marriage ceremony (someone else must officiate). Aug 20 '17 at 16:01
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    @FumbleFingers Until reading your comment it hadn't occurred to me that "It can't be eaten by itself" was potentially ambiguous. Unlikely, you might say, but with "they can't be eaten by themselves" it does introduce the spectre of cannibalism.
    – WS2
    Aug 20 '17 at 16:28
  • Lowering the tone somewhat, I found this pussy won't be eaten by itself, which I assume equates to It takes two to "tango" (in an oral sex context), as with irate parent to teenage offspring: I wish you'd tidy your room sometimes. Your bed won't make itself, you know! That by itself = alone, unaided sense is actually quite common in facetious usages with the general sense Dig in! This [food] won't eat itself! Aug 21 '17 at 13:02

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