The Verb “Do” Is Weirder Than You Think

English’s odd, meaningless “do.”

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #320


Today it’s going to be a big to-do over the verb “do.” That’s right, “do.” You might not have given much thought to how many jobs “do” does, and how unusual it is, so today we’re going to give “do” its due.

“Do”: The Verb

First let’s consider “do’s” job as an ordinary verb. In fact, I used “do” in Etsy "Do"that way when I said “how many jobs ‘do’ does.” In that sentence, “does” has its basic meaning of performing some action. It’s a vague meaning, with the specifics coming from the larger phrase it’s in, such as “do the dishes,” “do your homework,” “do your nails,” “do lunch,” or “do someone wrong.” You just have to learn, idiom by idiom, that the action is washing (“do the dishes”), eating (“do lunch”), and so on.

Sometimes you need an entire sentence to know what “do” means. For example, “do happy” doesn’t make much sense, but it does if it’s uttered by a grumpy boss or teacher who says, “Happy? I don’t do happy.” And remember that time our friend Fenster ate a bite of pizza, and the cheese stretched out until it finally snapped and ended up on his chin? Now we call that “doing a Fenster.”

“Do”: The Light Verb

“Do” carries even less meaning when it’s used as something called a light verb. When “do” is a light verb, its direct object isn’t just any noun, as in examples like “do lunch.” Instead, it’s a verbal noun. For example, you can do a study, do a dance, or do a dive off the diving board. When “do” is a light verb, the information about the specific action doesn’t come from the rest of the phrase it’s in; it comes just from that verbal noun that tells you exactly what the action is. In “do a dance,” it’s the verbal noun “dance” that tells us the action. Other light verbs include “take” (as in “take a nap” and “take a walk”, “make” (as in “make an announcement” and “make a decision”), and “have” (as in “have a cry,” “have a swim,” and “have a talk”).

"Do" does have equivalents like this in other languages, but where "do" is really strange in English is when it's a helping verb.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.