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The Uses of Do

Time does fly

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 the tag:

(7) You didn't fly, did you?
(8) Jane never dances, does she?
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 in INVERSION:
(9) Time is flying, isn't it?
(10 Time has flown, hasn't it?
(11) 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 English:

(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 auxiliary:

(16) He will forget. [Or something bad will happen to him.]
(17) He has forgotten. [Whatever he may have promised.]

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 verb:

(18) Time does fly.
(19) I did take out the garbage, whatever Tom says.

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 preferred:

(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 not.

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 following sentences:

(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 sentences?
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).