5

My original notion was,

  • A) If there's a movement and a destination (as in the case of thumbing a book to reach a certain page), it should be to:
    Class, open your books to page 13!

  • B) If there's none, then at:
    There on the counter rested my cookbook, open at page 13.
    The tome fell open right at the middle page.

Then I asked around and rummaged in corpora and found out that my reasoning was flawed. [IMO, there's either something wrong with logic or with language—or both. Somebody fix the whole mess please.] In fact, when it comes to opening or being open, the preposition is almost always to in AmE, whereas BrE is probably mixed, and (sometimes?) there is even a strong preference for at (especially in cases like B above).

I'll close with some of the search results that I mentioned, and leave the rest to others to hash out. Speakers of other dialects are more than welcome to chip in as well!

  1. shut the book for a moment, then open it back up to page one and begin againCOCA
  2. Students, if you could please open your math books to page two – COCA
  3. Open your grammar at page fourteenBNC
  4. every time I took up the book it opened at page 92, although I have never deliberately read that page – BNC
  5. I happened to open the Rome Treaty at page 89 of the English textHansard Corpus
  6. his first act on sitting down to breakfast was to open the tabloid at page three, fold it and prop it against the sugar bowl – BNC
  • 4
    You are right that BrE has a preference for open at, open to sounds really odd to me. However we always say turn to so your first search result is not specifically American. What you do hear in the classroom settings in the UK is "open your books and turn to page X". In my opinion there is no inconsistency in the BrE usage in relation to publications: the verb "open" is used with "at" when a location is specified and the verb "turn" is used with "to" in the same circumstance. – BoldBen Apr 8 at 6:23
  • 1
    Unless you’re very skilled at guessing page thickness I’d think it would be very difficult to open a book at an exact page number. Using “to” allows one to open and the flip to the desired page. :-) – Jim Apr 8 at 6:50
  • 1
    If you look at your examples from that perspective the use of at vs to makes much more sense. – Jim Apr 8 at 6:53
  • 2
    @Jim I don't think 6 is ambiguous at all (and it is BNC so British). There are two points, firstly page 3 is easy to find, you just turn the first page over and it's facing you. Also in the British context Page 3 of a tabloid implies The Sun and its daily girlie photo. At least it used to, I haven't seen page 3 of The Sun in years and I think they've dropped it. – BoldBen Apr 8 at 8:47
  • 2
    @BoldBen - I’m in total agreement with your indexes/tabs comment, your turning/flipping comment and your two separate actions/two separates verbs comment. As to the page 3 thing, I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. You are, of course right that page three is easy to open right to. Thanks for the Sun Page three info, I remember being aware as a kid that one of the British papers had such a picture but I couldn’t have told you which one or which page. – Jim Apr 8 at 16:03
1

In brief, it may make sense to think of the choice of preposition as both based in dialect and based on semantic requirements.

First, I agree with your general findings that the choice of preposition in this context is based in dialect. Other informal sources attest it, like several people in a Word Reference forum post. UK dictionaries also tend to model the open ... at usage: Oxford Dictionaries (at), Oxford Learner's Dictionary (at). This pattern seems to be common enough that many American and UK speakers don't recognize it as a dialect difference until they encounter the other version. It's that subtle.

That said, there are also non-dialect explanations for the choice of preposition. Famed British linguist David Crystal wrote a blog post in 2011 explaining the difference semantically, though his choices (perhaps writing from a UK perspective) are "at" and "on":

A correspondent writes to ask if he can say both ‘Open your book on page...‘ and ‘Open your book at page...’ Is there a difference?

...

‘Opening a book’ is an interesting example of overlap between the two perspectives. In one way it’s a reference to location - so, ‘at’. Most people would open a book ‘at’ a particular page. But people have a semantic reason for asking someone to open a book at a particular point - so ‘on’ isn’t ruled out. In the first case, they’re thinking ‘where’; in the second, they’re thinking ‘what’.

If Crystal were writing from an American perspective, "to" would have a sense of location or position with "open a book," but "at" or "on" would be used in other cases. Perhaps that sense of to would be as you describe in (A), as the preposition in the phrasal verb "go to," or as something like definition 4a for the preposition "to" in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Expressing simple position: At, in (a place, also figurative a condition, etc.).

So in American dialects, there may be a further semantic breakdown between "at" as denoting a static location, "to" denoting a purposeful action toward a location, and "on" as a more literal descriptor of place.

In other words, using Crystal's language, at denotes "where (static)," to denotes "where (purpose or goal)," and on denotes "what." Because UK English already uses "open at," within that system at denotes both kinds of location ("where") without a further distinction except in a phrasal verb where to is already baked in, like "go to."

  • I agree that on denotes "what" in this case, and I'll add that to me having it coupled with open requires a straining stretch of imagination. Thanks for the well-organized analysis and ample referencing. – Færd Apr 11 at 7:19
-2

In this context, "Open your books at page 13." if proper, is the minority alternative. "Open your books to page 13." is certainly more common across the major dialects of English. The action of opening a book describes a movement of sorts towards a specific page, so to would be the better preposition. At, on the other hand, does not typically describe movement, rather it tends to suggest a fixed position.

The chaos becomes clearer when both usages are applied to other nouns:

  1. Open your mind at new events. (Only be receptive during new events)
  2. Open your mind to new events. (Be receptive to the new events)

  3. Open the door at the house. (Ambiguous)

  4. Open the door to the house. (The front door)
  • Please provide a basis for your assertion that "Open your books to page 13." is certainly more common across the major dialects of English." And what do you mean by "the major dialects"? – TrevorD Apr 10 at 22:58
  • My assertion is based purely on observation. I lived and studied in Nigeria, England and the US for extended periods of time. I have never once heard the expression "open a book at page...". All I heard was "open to page this" or "turn to page that". I do not disagree that it is acceptable usage in some dialects (I know Australians say "open your books at page 13" or "open your books on page 13"). I only strongly suggest (and cheerfully stand to be corrected) that "open to" is both more prevalent and in line with traditional English grammar rules. – Tuviking Apr 12 at 15:32
  • A comment above (with 4 up-votes) specifically states that "BrE [British English] has a preference for open at", which ties in with a comment in the Q. itself, and directly contradicts your assertion - unless you don't count British English as a "major dialect of English"! I have lived in England all my life (>60 years) and anything other than "open at" sounds strange to me. Additionally, your reference to "grammar rules" is irrelevant because this is not an issue of grammar. – TrevorD Apr 12 at 16:36
  • There are roughly 190 million Nigerians and 327 million Americans. Both populations of native speakers say "open to" predominantly. There are about 67 million Brits, 5 million New Zealanders and 25 million Aussies. That's a total of 97 million at the most. I'll tell you what, let's call it 100 million. I beg to differ that 517 million native speakers constitutes a majority over 100 million. This was my logic. – Tuviking Apr 15 at 14:46

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