Why your teacher wants you to use do and yet you don’t

As an English teacher, I love teaching students how to use ‘do’ as it stops them from saying things like:

  • ‘I no have time’
  • ‘He want a book from the library?’

And my personal fave: ‘What means that?’ (if I got a euro for every time a student asked me this exact question… I’d still be a teacher because teaching is awesome. I’d just be somewhat more prosperous)

‘Somewhat more prosperous’

With some students, this error is incredibly persistent. Why?

The easy answer: Verbs are not used like ‘do’ in your own language.

The longer, infinitely more interesting answer:

In your own language, you use ‘do’ as a lexical verb. So it actually means something. In English, you can use ‘do’ like that as well. An example:

“Could you do that for me please?” ( = Could you perform that action for me please?)

However, you can also use it as an auxiliary verb. That means the verb only has a grammatical purpose. They are there to help the cool lexical verbs with real meanings do things like forming questions (Do you have? Have you got? Etc.) or negative statements (I don’t want. He doesn’t like. Etc.)

What’s so special about ‘do’ is that it is a ‘dummy’ auxiliary verb. It’s basically the default auxiliary verb if you don’t have a better one available.


You should be, as this was a relatively recent innovation of English. Those sneaky English speakers didn’t even use the ‘do’ auxiliary themselves until fairly recently. Check out this example from Old English:

  • Old English: ‘Hæfst þu ænigne geferan?’  (Ælfric’s Colloquy)
  • Modern English: ‘Do you have any comrades?’

In 1066, the Frenchies came over to conquer England and had an insanely strong influence on the language (a topic for a later post). Yet, even in Middle English, the English don’t do ‘do’. An example from the Father of English Literature:

  • Middle English: Melibee answerde, ‘If I ne venge me nat of the vileynye that men han doon to me’ (Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer)
  • Modern English: Melibee answered, ‘If I do not avenge myself of the villainy that man have done to me’

When did they finally hop to it then? The English had to wait until the Renaissance (that’s when Shakespeare was alive).

Why did they bother at that point? Its origin has caused ‘scholarly controversy’ (that means people don’t have a clue, but try to get funding for a PhD project on the origin of ‘do’). Also, they basically did whatever they felt like. Sometimes they used ‘do’ as an auxiliary, sometimes they left it out. Even Shakespeare couldn’t make up his mind:

  • Early Modern English: ‘He sends you not to murder me for this’ (Shakespeare, King Richard III)
  • Also Early Modern English: ‘Wherefore do you come?’ (Shakespeare, King Richard III)
This is such a lame and predictable joke, but I feared they would take away my teaching degree if I didn’t make it so there.

In the 18th century, they finally stopped messing about and decided on the current use of ‘do’, confusing students of English across the globe ever since. Ta-da!

If, like me, the linguistic history of English excites you, you might want to take a look at this cool book (I also found most of the examples there).

This was the set coursebook of a course on English Historical Linguistics I loved so much I did the exam twice! (Or, you know, I had to, because I failed the exam the first time as I forgot to bring the book along to the open book exam. HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE? My mum asked me the same thing.)


  1. Els, this is brilliant and hilarious and made me laugh out loud in a café thereby causing all the neighbouring British people to raise their eyebrows while studiously not looking at me. 😀


  2. And what about “Have you left no sense of decency?” Or “Have you no honor?” Deliberately archaic for dramatic purposes? Not something I’d bother students with, but interesting for the linguists among us 🙂


    1. I think that it’s still possible in modern standard English, especially in certain parts of the UK, to use inversion to make a question with ‘have’ when it’s a lexical verb, even if it’s becoming a bit old fashioned. My grandfather would always say ‘have you a pen?’, for example. He spoke a standard English that was slightly influenced by living Scottish Highlands.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This whole question of “with or without do” reminds me very much of a not so recent article I recently read on the “groter als >< dan" issue in Dutch. Both were apparently used indiscriminately by Vondel and his contemporaries. And then some clever guy whose name I have forgotten and who felt very much inspired by the centralised French language set out to lay down rules about Dutch. I'm quite sure he used a game of darts to decide on what would be the correct word to use. That was the end of the language user's freedom to use either "dan" or "als" after comparatives. The author of the article claimed that if a battle that started more than 200 years ago hadn't been won yet, it meant that it was a lost cause right from the start. After having read the article I decided to silence the little correcting voice in my head, at least where the als/dan issue is concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is so interesting! I’ve also had an annoying voice in my head whenever somebody said “groter als” that I will now try to silence :).


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