Hello,

While I was reading the book "Practical English Usage, 3rd edition, page 477, I came across an example, wherein the writer, Michael Swan, of worldwide fame, made a strange claim. Why strange? Because I firmly believe in this very section he's trying to explain things using decontextualized examples.


He says sentence (a) below is wrong:


(a) Suddenly the door opened itself.

Although I believe the above sentence is less common than the version with no reflexive pronoun, I don't think it's grammatically wrong. Well, when prompted, a self-opening door opens itself. Right?


What's more, I am pretty sure the sentence (b) below is perfectly grammatical.


(b) The door opens itself when someone comes near it.

Of course, by "the door" the writer probably means a self-contained unit that includes the door and the opening mechanism. Otherwise, the better version sure is: The door opens when someone comes near it.

That's why I say: Context is important.


I would be happy if you would share your opinions with me.


Thanks.

 
Original Post
Freeguy posted:
He says sentence (a) below is wrong:


(a) Suddenly the door opened itself.

Although I believe the above sentence is less common than the version with no reflexive pronoun, I don't think it's grammatically wrong. Well, when prompted, a self-opening door opens itself. Right?

Hi, Freeguy,

I don't have my copy of Swan nearby, as I have been away from home for Christmas. Thus, I need to speculate as to why Swan says that (a) is incorrect.

The sentence is not ungrammatical. It's just rather weird: it makes the door seem as though it's a conscious agent that deliberately does things.

The sentence "The door opened itself" would work in a cartoon or fantasy context in which doors are personified as living beings who act.

Otherwise, the normal way to use the reflexive pronoun "itself" here would be to add the preposition "of" before it. Or you can use the adverb "automatically":

(c) Suddenly the door opened of itself.
(d) Suddenly the door opened automatically.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines "of oneself" as follows: "by one's own impetus or motion; without the instigation or aid of another."

It is also possible, as you yourself have said, to omit such phrases entirely and simply say, "Suddenly the door opened."

We do use reflexive pronouns as direct objects after "open" in other contexts, where people (or, I suppose, humanoid robots) are involved:

(e) He opened himself up to criticism.
(f) The robot opened itself so that the scientist could examine its innards.

I firmly believe in this very section he's trying to explain things using decontextualized examples.

The two examples where intransitive "open" appears in Swan are provided under sections 493 (item 9) and 609:

493 Swan609 Swan

I have to say I don't like the examples under item (9) above, where it says Some other verbs which do not normally have reflexive pronouns... While it is true that those verbs will not take the reflexive form, it is also true that speakers and students of English will not readily understand why verbs like concentrate, feel and hurry should be reflexive at all.

Section 609 is, in my opinion, clearer and fully in line with David's explanation: inanimate subjects (i.e. things) cannot engage in voluntary actions and take reflexive verbs. Excellent examples of verbs that don't take the reflexive form when used to refer to things in subject position are start and move (see above). Other examples are the verbs break and close. 

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