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I am not a native speaker of English. I would like to know whether "The door can't open." is always an incorrect expression.

More specifically, the Wikipedia article on Force dynamics has the following text which seems to support the legitimacy of the phrase.

Expressions can exhibit a force dynamic pattern or can be force-dynamically neutral. A sentence like The door is closed is force-dynamically neutral, because there are no forces opposing each other. The sentence The door cannot open, on the other hand, exhibits a force dynamic pattern: apparently the door has some tendency toward opening, but there is some other force preventing it from being opened (e.g., it may be jammed).

Is this usage incorrect?

I asked this question in order to ascertain whether the claim of a non-native English speaker that "The door can't open." is always incorrect is right or wrong. The person seemed to have no particular reason, just a gut feeling.

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    Why do you think it might be incorrect?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 0:50
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    A certain Japanese person insisted on an Internet message board that "The door can't open." is completely incorrect, so I asked this question to confirm that the claim is wrong.
    – L-traveler
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 1:03
  • Japan's English education is infamous for not being that great. It is also understandable that a teacher would say something is incorrect if 99.9% of the time it is genuinely a mistake made by learnings of English. Perhaps their teacher wanted to instill phrases like "The door can't be opened" or "The door doesn't open".
    – Kimbi
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 2:38
  • See also forum.wordreference.com/threads/the-door-can’t-won’t-open.4019694/
    – Greybeard
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 9:11
  • If you could edit your question and explain why the phrase is thought to be ungrammatical, that would be really helpful and interesting too!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 12:09

2 Answers 2

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It is not always incorrect.

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A study of this page of examples shows many contexts of use: the door can't open. There are two main groups of contexts: that when the door is shut and can't swing at all, and that when it can't swing fully open; in that latter case there is more often a completing adverbial.

  • the door can't open (wider/fully/forwards/from the outside/all the way/more than 90 °/…)
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  • "The door can't open." was found to be used on the websites of a U.S. university and on the website of a U.S. government agency. I also found it used on many other web pages. I feel that since the expression is used this much, the expression can never be said to be "always incorrect".
    – L-traveler
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 1:13
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    -1, because existence of usage does not show correctness. Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 3:24
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    @DJClayworth To a certain extent this remark about usage can be called correct, but it can certainly not be taken absolutely. From some point on usage can become so imassive that the misnomer or anomalous expression having become a household word it can't be called incorrect. Is the term "tin can" correct? On the ground of your reasonning it's not, it's never (almost never) made of tin; yet it's as common as metal can. (books.google.com/ngrams/…)
    – LPH
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 7:50
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    These ngrams are meaningless (0.0000000175%) unless you compare a phrase with its synonym. the door can not open vs the door does not open
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 12:15
  • "That door can't open all the way" certainly sounds entirely correct to me; I don't see any reason for rejecting it.
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 11, 2023 at 12:59
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apparently the door has some tendency toward opening, but there is some other force preventing it from being opened

Like for instance an automatic door that is blocked by some obstruction. This is perfectly grammatical.

Perhaps there is some common Japanese phrase meaning "the door is locked" or "the door cannot be opened" that the naive student would mistranslate to English as "the door cannot open" and your acquaintance is overly sensitive to this mistake.

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