English’s odd, meaningless “do.”
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 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.
“Do”: The Helping Verb
As an ordinary verb or a light verb, English “do” has near-equivalents in other languages. But where English “do” really stands out is as a helping verb. Actually, the way English uses all its helping verbs is unusual among languages of the world, but even among languages that use helping verbs the way English does, English “do” is odd.
In English, helping verbs switch places with their subject in order to form questions, such as “Have you eaten?” and “Where are they going?” This so-called subject-auxiliary inversion also happens when we put a negative adverb at the beginning of the sentence. For example, I might say, “Never will I allow that to happen!”
According to the World Atlas of Language Structures, subject-verb inversion is mostly limited to languages originating in Europe, and the English version of that strategy, subject-auxiliary inversion, is rarer still.
English Demands Helping Verbs
The requirement for a helping verb is so strong in English that when we want to form a question out of a clause that doesn’t have one, we bring in a helping verb anyway. And what helping verb do we use? That’s right; it’s “do.” For example, take the sentence, “I finished writing my book.” There’s no helping verb in that sentence, so to turn it into a question, we supply the helping verb “did”: “Did you finish writing your book?” In Chapter 1 of his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, linguist John McWhorter points out that English is the only one of the Germanic languages to do this.
“Do” in Negative Sentences
There are other things that “do” does that set it apart. In negative sentences, English again uses “do” in a way that other Germanic languages don’t. Like questions, negative sentences in English require a helping verb to come before the word “not,” and when there is no other helping verb to be had, it’s “do” once again that steps in. So instead of just putting “no” or “not” at the beginning or the end of a sentence as many other languages do, English uses “do not” or “don’t.”
“Do” for Emphasis
Aside from questions and negations, you can even use “do” in sentences just to show emphasis. So if your mother chastises you for not making your bed, you wouldn’t just say, “But I made my bed”; you’d say, “But I did make my bed.” As McWhorter notes, these are more things that hardly any other languages in the world do.
“Do”: The Celtic-English Connection
In fact, the only other languages that exhibit this kind of behavior with their verb for “do” are the Celtic languages—the mostly extinct languages that were spoken in Great Britain before the Angles and Saxons came to stay. McWhorter argues that these striking peculiarities are strong and clear evidence of how the Celtic languages influenced English.
Surviving Celtic languages include Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh, which has the same peculiarities about “do” that English does, and can even have uses like “I did make my bed” in ordinary, non-emphatic utterances. As a clincher, McWhorter reminds us that English used to be like that, too, and quotes a few lines from Shakespeare, such as “My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time.”
One more example of “do” serving when no other helping verb is available is in elliptical verb phrases—that is, verb phrases consisting of just a helping verb, which allow us to avoid repeating a verb phrase. For instance, if a minister asks you this summer, “Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love and cherish, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, for better for worse, till death do you part?”, I don’t recommend responding, “I take this man to be my lawfully wedded husband, to love and cherish, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, for better for worse, till death do us part.” Instead, “I do” will work just fine.
What’s really fun is when helping-verb “do” runs up against ordinary-verb “do.” As Cole Porter wrote, “Do do that voodoo that you do so well”—though I wouldn’t advise singing that line to an audience of elementary-school boys. Then there’s the well-worn joke about three lines of graffiti involving “do” and “be.” One version goes like this:
“To be or not to be” – Shakespeare
“To be is to do” – Socrates
“Do be do be do” – Sinatra
And with that, we’ve done our “do” diligence!
Dryer, Matthew S. 2011. Polar Questions. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 116. Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/116 Accessed on 2012-04-25.
McWhorter, John. 2008. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. New York: Gotham Books.