- 10 -
The Uses of Do
English has borrowed words from hundreds of languages, giving it a much
larger vocabulary than any of us is likely to master in our lifetimes.
Even so, you can express most of what you need to say in English with a
relative handful of words. One famous effort came up with a Basic English
vocabulary of about 850 words, sufficient for most purposes and proposed
as an international language. Particular subjects required some
supplements, but the Christian Bible was translated into Basic English
with only an additional 150 special purpose words. One reason this was
possible is that English uses many words for multiple purposes, including
such verbs as be, get, have, and do. It is not at all
clear that this makes life easier for non-native speakers learning the
language, since they can find it hard to guess which meaning is intended.
The verb do is especially ubiquitous. We have already seen it at
work in yes/no questions, but it used in other ways as well.
TAG Questions DO-INSERTION comes up in a more obscure
interrogative sentence form as well, the tag question. Once again,
the tense (and person, gender and number) are copied to another place in
the sentence, this time to the end of the sentence. If there is no modal
or other auxiliary verb, DO-INSERTION is normally required:
(1) Time flies, doesn't it?
As in questions formed by INVERSION, the tense-bearing do
comes before a pronoun representing the subject. We know that the pronoun
represents the subject because it must agree with the subject in person,
number, and gender:
(2) I won, didn't I?
(3) You flew, didn't you?
(4) Jane danced, didn't she?
(5) George cheats, doesn't he?
(6) Bears hibernate, don't they?
The assumption of a tag question is that the initial statement is one
with which the person(s) addressed must agree. In the examples above, a
negative has been added after the tense-bearing do. If the
initial statement is itself negative, then no negative element is added in
If there is a modal or tense auxiliary in the statement, then that is used
as the operator in the tag. This is consistent with the way tense works
(7) You didn't fly, did you?
(8) Jane never dances, does she?
Time is flying, isn't it?
Time has flown, hasn't it?
Time can fly, can't it?
The main verbs be and have are again exceptions to
the rule requiring DO-INSERTION, with be always an exception and
have an optional exception, especially in Standard British
(12) Time is money, isn't it?
(13) Grace has money, hasn't she?
(14) Grace has money, doesn't she?
The rules for tag questions given here are for Standard American and
Standard British English. There are
dialects in which the tag phrase does not have to agree in tense with the
main clause, including some foreign dialects which can use isn't
it? as an all purpose tag with almost any main verb, rather as
Americans are sometimes accused of using you know?. The English
of India is often characterized by expressions like:
(15) They are going, isn't it?
The Emphatic DO: In sentences where we desire to make a
strong affirmation, the extra stress has to fall on some
(16) He will forget.
| [Or something bad will
(17) He has forgotten.
|[Whatever he may have
If there is no auxiliary around, DO-INSERTION comes to the rescue. In
such cases, do is followed by the base form of the main
(18) Time does fly.
(19) I did take out the garbage, whatever Tom
This is a relatively modern innovation. Shakespeare could employ
either (20) or (21) as might best fit the meter of his poetry, but in
modern usage sentence (21) is the emphatic do, an affirmation
offered in response to or anticipation of some challenge:
(20) Edward went to battle.
(21) Edward did go to battle.
Negative Sentences: DO-INSERTION also applies when a
negative is inserted in front of the main verb and there is no auxiliary
verb. Even as a main verb be is again an exception, as in
sentence (26). As a main verb, have is not usually treated as an
exception in American Standard English,
with either sentences (27) or (28) being
(22) Edgar cannot dance.
(23) Edgar does not dance.
(24) Edgar was not dancing.
(25) Edgar has not been dancing.
(26) Edgar is not lively.
(27) Edgar does not have rhythm.
(28) Edgar has no rhythm.
Do as Pro-Verb. The verb do (or do
so) can be used to stand for an entire antecedent predicate, rather
as pronouns can stand for nouns or noun phrases. Notice that if there is
more than one verb in the predicate, it is the entire predicate that is
replaced, not just the verb:
(29) Martha walked, and George did too.
(30) Martha ate a kumquat, but George did
Do as Main Verb. Finally, do is not always a
result of DO-INSERTION; it can also serve as a main verb, as in the
(31) Alphonse does my hair himself.
(32) Do it to me, baby, one more time.
(33) Debby does Dallas.
(34) Daddy did time.
Exercise 1: Dos and Don'ts
What uses of do are found in the following
1.01 Who does your hair?
1.02 Why do I love you?
1.03 I do not love thee, Doctor Fell.
1.04 Books do furnish a room.
1.05 Ernest and Cecily dislike frogs,
and Gwendolyn does too.
1.06 I did the first exercise in the chapter.
1.07 I did hope that more of you would have read the material.
1.08 Didn't I tell you not to touch the vase?
1.09 She does look great.
1.10 If anyone needs a haircut, he does.
Diagramming Negative and Emphatic Sentences. The do
supplied for negative or emphatic sentences is treated as a modal
verb, so we'll put it under the tense/modal INFL position.
How Much of This Will be on the Test?|
You should be able to recognize the various uses of do--those
resulting from DO-INSERTION (yes/no questions, the emphatic do, tag
questions) and others (pro-verb, main verb).