In everyday speech, you may have heard people say, “what can I do for you?” Additionally, you may have heard people say, “what can I do you for?” Even though these sentences are used in similar cases, do they mean the same thing?
What Does “What Can I Do For You?” Mean?
“What can I do for you?” is a common English expression. It is a polite way of asking, “how can I help you?”
The verb “to do” is used in the phrase, which usually means “to perform, complete, show, administer, achieve, or pay.” Check out these examples that use “to do:”
- I have so much work to do tomorrow!
- She was wondering what she could do to plead her case.
- I was just doing my best to help!
- Just saying that an excellent novel is ‘good’ doesn’t do justice.
- She does just about everything around the shop.
What Does “What Can I Do You For?” Mean?
In contrast to the original statement, “what can I do you for?” is a joke saying that first appeared in the 1980s. By flipping the words, “do” becomes a verb that refers to criminal/unpleasant actions. Look at these sentences that use “to do” in a negative manner:
- You better watch out; you’ll never know what I can do to you!
- The criminal did bad things to the victim.
In more everyday speech, however, “what can I do you for?” acts as a simple pleasantry. Instead of the comment suggesting that the speaker will take advantage of them, it is supposed to be a cute way of asking, “what can I do for you?”
While this phrase rarely comes up in formal or business settings, it’s not uncommon to see or used in fiction literature or everyday conversation.
Beware though, even if this phrase has a pleasant meaning, due to the nature of the pun, it can come off as offensive or even threatening. Because of this, it is probably best to stick with the very popular, “what can I do for you?”
Examples From Inspiring English Sources:
From the Bezirksgefängnis in Zurich, where he has been imprisoned for hotel fraud, he telephones me, reversing the charges. “Son? It’s your old man.” What can I do for you, Father? – The New Yorker
As a child star, Mr. Bale has said, he was an object of both fascination and ridicule among schoolmates, and he still seems a little embarrassed to be an actor. “Nuclear apocalypse who do you need?” he asked, launching into a half-joking rant. “Actors are probably not top of the list. What can I do for you? I can pretend to be somebody who can grow you some nice crops.” – The New York Times