I've noticed that there seems to be a usage of "to" where I expect "for" in certain dialects of English. The one that caught my eye today was a Reddit submission where the OP used the title "Why you don't perform magic to small children".

Thinking about it, there seems to be something to the usage I'm not really grasping well. Running through various combinations and how they hit my ear:

OK usages

  • Perform magic for children
  • Performing magic for children
  • Perform magic for a crowd
  • Performing magic for a crowd
  • Perform magic for a child

Jarring usages

  • Perform magic to children
  • Performing magic to children
  • Perform magic to a crowd
  • Performing magic to a crowd
  • Perform magic to a child
  • Performing magic to a child

However, after replacing 'magic' with 'music' it changes to

OK usages

  • Perform music for children
  • Performing music for children
  • Perform music for a crowd
  • Performing music for a crowd
  • Perform music for a child
  • Perform music to children
  • Performing music to children
  • Perform music to a crowd
  • Performing music to a crowd
  • Perform music to a child
  • Performing music to a child

Jarring usages

  • None?

What is the subtlety that I am missing? Is this just a matter of idiom or is there in fact a rule?

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    Why would you assume that a Reddit title (or any text written in an open internet forum) should be any kind of usage model? – Robusto Sep 2 '12 at 15:45
  • Primarily because, as I noted, replacing 'magic' with 'music' appears to change the decision of whether it sounds good on my ear. And because I have seen this usage of 'to' instead of 'for' in a number of posts. If it was only once or twice I would have passed it off as random poor grammar. But I've seen it enough times to suspect that it is an issue of dialect or idiom. – Snowhare Sep 2 '12 at 15:58
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    @BenjaminFranz: So? A doctor would perform surgery on children — does that mean you should consider that preposition as well for all actions that can be performed with respect to children? – Robusto Sep 2 '12 at 16:00
  • @Robusto: "The wizard performed his magic on children – and turned them all into little newts." – J.R. Sep 2 '12 at 17:32
  • @J.R.: Doesn't work for music, though, does it? And a doctor wouldn't perform surgery to children, but might do so for them. Not all prepositions apply equally to all meanings of a verb acting upon different nouns. – Robusto Sep 2 '12 at 18:09

To my ear, even perform music to is somewhat jarring. I believe this is because the verb perform does not carry any sense of what I would call "directionality". One does not perform to a crowd; one performs for and performs in front of a crowd.

On the other hand, one could play music to, sing a song to, deliver a speech to and explain English usage to the crowd. In all these cases, the verb can carry the connotation of being directed to something, so the use of to is justified, although for could also be used to provide a slightly different meaning.

So I don't think the nouns in your example determine the use of for or to, but rather the verbs do.

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    If you use asterisks for formatting instead of backticks, it will look much better. – tchrist Sep 2 '12 at 19:44

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