A self-described "curious Norse" named Erik sent me an e-mail recently, puzzled by English-speakers' use of the word do.

A self-described "curious Norse" named Erik sent me an e-mail recently, puzzled by English-speakers' use of the word do.

The word in itself, isolated, I can understand, but what I cannot comprehend from an etymological point of view, is the logic behind the (for me) seemingly puzzling word order, ie. sequence of words in phrases such as:

"do you need help?"

"She doesn't do drugs."

"How do you do?"

Isn't this repetitive/superfluous use of the verb DO..? If not, pls. explain. I mean, why not just say "need you help?" or "how do you? "The short answer is "mostly it has to do with word order," and I'll get to that in a minute. And no, it isn't really logical or efficient, but language seldom is. Language is organic and democratic and thus generally illogical and inefficient.

In English, do is a "light verb" (along with "come," "get," "go," "have," "put," "set," "stand," and "take"), which means, in addition to its regular meaning, it takes on dozens of others, especially in combination with particles. Many languages have such verbs, and they're useful, though they can be infuriating to non-native speakers.

The light verbs often also function as auxiliary or helper verbs, zombies drained of meaning that slave for other, fully living, verbs to express tense or other niceties of grammatical meaning. "Have" and "be" do this often in English. The "have" in "I have been to Paris" has nothing in common with the meaning in "I have $800 to spend on hookers."

The auxiliary use of do, however, is mainly as a dummy. The auxiliary do is used for questions ("how do you do?") and negatives ("doesn't do drugs").

Taking the second first, the great grammarian of English, Otto Jespersen, noted the "comparatively recent use of do in negative sentences, through which I do not know and I did not know have been substituted for the earlier I know not and I knew not."

The Old English construction place the negative first: we ne sungen ("we didn't sing" — literally "we no sung"). In Middle English, as the negative got demoted in the sentence order, do was introduced to allow the negative to stay in front of the principal verb. This may have been reinforced by a desire to avoid misunderstanding that would arise if the negation was withheld till the end. Without the do, a negative sentence can seem like one of those Wayne's World gag lines where a positive statement you think is sincere is terminated by an emphatic "not" that turns it on its head.

And if you think of:

I do not want to remember. I want not to remember.There are useful but subtle distinctions of meaning between these two sentences, perhaps perceptible only to native speakers or those who have truly mastered the modern idiom.

Do also can be added as a dummy to a verb merely to express reality or strength: "I do wish you wouldn't spend so much on whores." With imperatives, it can express a strong entreaty: "do be quiet." This use goes back to late Old English. Probably the same unconscious tactic gave rise to the U.S. Southern habit of using done as a perfective auxiliary: "done said it" was noted as a Georgia peculiarity as far back as 1827.

I think some of this has to do with emphasis. Do is an emphatic burst of air, a very assertive sound. If your actual statement is not strong-sounding ("be quiet"), it helps to be able to lean on the do to get attention. My son has always been a strong-headed type, and when he was 2 and 3 he never used the word "yes," but would respond to anything in the affirmative with "do!" Meaning, I suppose, "I do," but you could tell by his whole body language that he was giving it the utmost force.

"How do you do" as a phrase inquiring after one's health is attested from 1697; the form "how do you" is more than a century older, being recorded from 1563. This corresponds roughly to the period in which the dummy do began to be used in such sentences.

The do in the one-verb sentence meant "fare, thrive, live." In the two-verb form, it has moved to the back, and an auxiliary, which happens to be the zombie or dummy do, has been inserted in its old place to preserve the subject-verb word order.

Word order, along with prepositions, is the key to understanding modern English and the reason the language was able to drop the inflections of Old English that its Germanic cousins still preserve. "Man" and "dog" look pretty much the same no matter what they are doing in a modern English sentence, so it is only by word order that we know the difference between the meanings of "man bites dog" and "dog bites man."

Old English didn't have this problem. "Man" was se guma when it was the subject of a sentence and þone guman when it was the object (accusative). Hund had the same form in both cases, but took a different definite article — se or þone — so it was easy to identify whether it was initiating the action or receiving it. Se guma bat þone hund and þone hund bat se guma both only can mean "the man bit the dog."

Without those tags, however, the language can get confused. So English speakers settled on the order Subject-Verb-Object for our sentences. So much so that anything else feels stilted, archaic, or just plain wrong. In "Beowulf," which is Old English poetry, only 16 percent of the sentences containing all three elements use the order S-V-O. Representative 19th century British writers, by contrast, use the order S-V-O in up to 97 percent of the sentences containing all three.

But questions present a challenge to that. According to Jespersen, "The word order characteristic of questions consists in placing the verb before the subject. This is opposed to the general tendency of the language, which is to have the subject before the verb. But the two tendencies are reconciled when the verb placed first is a comparatively insignificant auxiliary, while the really important verb comes after the subject ...." [Jespersen, Essentials of English Grammar, 1933, 28.6.2]

The tendency to this goes as far back as Chaucer, who has, in the Monk's Tale, "Fader why do ye wepe?" But it really snowballed in the 16th century. Jespersen writes, "During the last few centuries, the use of do (does, did) has become the rule in such interrogative sentences as contain no other auxiliary; instead of the old 'Swims he?' etc., we now say: Does he swim? ..."

That this use is related to word order preference is supported by the fact that do is dispensed with in interrogative sentences in which the subject naturally precedes the verb: "Who swims?" "What happened?"

"How do you" is V-S word order. That word order is grammatically acceptable but avoided whenever possible. The strict S-V-O rule is broken more often in poetry, for the sake of meter, rhyme, or emphasis, than in prose. In either case it feels stilted. You could say, "Had he no money?" and be speaking perfectly comprehensible and grammatical English, but almost every real person in my experience would say, "Didn't he have any money?" The former is reserved for stock Hollywood characters meant to represent British stuffiness.

It reminds me of the old Three Stooges gag (perhaps in more than one short) where for whatever reason the numbskulls are trying to learn to be refined gentlemen and being tutored in it by some classy society dame, who gives them a book to read from to improve their diction and grammar.

Larry (reading): See the deer. Has the deer a little doe?
Curly: Yeah, two bucks, nyuck-nyuck.
Moe: [eye poke w. sound effect]

In cases like "how do you do" and "does she do drugs," do is both the auxiliary and the main verb; it is a slave to itself, though the zombied form is not felt by most English speakers as identical to the real verb (which, in each of the cases cited, is itself derived and wandering from the original sense). Such double-duty use of do is at least as old as c.1489, when this sentence turns up: "It is to late to repente me that [i.e. what] I dyde not doo."

I was curious as to what "do" does in Norse, but it turns out they don't have it. English do (and German tun) descend from a West Germanic strong verb wanting in Gothic (which used its form of English work in this sense) and Norse. My Norsk-Engelsk dictionary gives gjøre for "do." The Golden Rule in Norwegian, according to the dictionary, is gjør mot andre som du vil de skal gjøre mot dig.

This word gjøre, based on the length of the entry in the Norse dictionary, seems to have a wide range of applications and use in special phrases translated into English by "do" but also by "be," "go," "make," "take," and "put."

The Norwegian word descends from Old Norse gørva, which originally meant "make ready." It is related to the Old English words gierwan "prepare, cook," gearwe "clothing, dress," and gearu"prepared, ready." All of them have fallen out of the language, but the Anglo-Saxons borrowed a word gervi from the viking settlers, which meant "apparel" and which was from the same linguistic root stock. By the 13th century this had become gear and meant "equipment" generally. (The meaning "toothed wheel in machinery" first is attested in 1523).

As a result of all these uses, the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the verb do runs to 20 columns of close-set type. Do is the third-most-common verb in English, according to a survey of newspapers, magazines, popular books and textbooks done at Brown University in 1982. Of a million words of modern English text, 4,367 will be do or some form of it.

[It runs a distant third, though, to its fellow auxiliary verbs "be" — 39,175 words — and "have" — 12,458 words.]

Many of these widespread senses of do are recent additions to the dictionary, but in number they've only replaced older ones that have fallen out of it. Chaucer used do (with "that" and a subordinate clause) to mean "to make so, to cause." His knight says, "Do that I tomorwe haue victorie." To Chaucer, do also could mean "to cause someone to do something," where we would now use "make." Chaucer's franklin says, "In yow lith al to do me lyue or deye."


"To be" is the most irregular verb in modern English, as well as the most common. In fact, it is a collective verb in all the Germanic languages. It takes eight different forms in Modern English:

BE = infinitive; subjunctive; imperative.

AM = Present, 1st person singular.

ARE = Present, 2nd person singular and all plural.

IS = Present, 3rd person singular.

WAS = Past, 1st and 3rd persons singular.

WERE = Past, 2nd person singular, all plural; subjunctive.

BEING = Progressive & present participle; gerund.

BEEN = Perfect participle.

These represent the merger of three once-distinct verbs:

S-root = eom, eart, is, sindon

B-root = beo, bist, biþ, beoþ

W-root = wesan, w&#aelig;s, w&#aelig;ron.

Beon was the only Anglo-Saxon verb with a special future form. It was used specifically for future states of being, or "coming to be," or statements of eternal truth. It comes from an Indo-European root meaning "to dwell."

The S-root form traces back to another Indo-European root, the same one that gave the Greek esti- and Latin est (and German ist). The Old English form was esan.

For plural and subjunctive, Old English could also use sindon (sind, sie), which died out in the 12th century and was replaced by "are" (eart), though it continues in Modern German as the 3rd person plural of "to be."

The past-tense forms (was, were) come from Old English wesan, and they are the only Modern english survival of the Verner's Law shift of "s" into "r" between infinitive and 2nd preterite. This transformation once affected a great many English verbs. Wesan also means dwell/remain, but didn't have the sense of permanence of beon. The imperative, wes, is buried in "wassail" = wes hal, or "be healthy." Beon was generally reserved for permanent states, esan and wesan for temporary ones. The use of the w-root as a preterite goes back to Proto-Germanic. Gothic has was, us, im. "The incorporation of the b-root into this group seems to be a West Germanic innovation."

The picture is further clouded because Old English had strong regional variations among the various kingdoms of the island, and different combinations were used in Northumbria than in the West Saxon kingdom. For instance, West Saxon used beoþ as the plural, but the modern plural, "are," is descended from the Anglian earon.

Retention of the b-root form was a mark of conservative dialect until the 1950s in rural West Country England — "I be," "you be," "they be." It is a badge of non-standard grammar in contemporary America.

Be, have, do, and go are the most common verbs in most languages, and the most irregular. They often double as helping verbs (auxiliaries). Their roots in existence, possession, action, and motion are, some linguists say, the essence of all verbs.

Be and go are the only Modern English verbs whose past tenses are different words. "Went" is from "wend," which survives, barely, as a present-tense verb only in the stilted construction "wend one's way," meaning "go." Oddly, the Old English "go" also had a past tense from an entirely different verb than its present, but not "wend."

Most Old English adjectives took the ending -ra and -ost for comparative and superlative. Thus leof (dear) became leofra (dearer) and leofost (dearest). But the most common comparatives had highly irregular endings:

YFEL (bad) - wiersa, wierst.

GOD (good) - betra/selra, betst/selest.

Betra and betst derived from bot, an Old English word meaning "remedy, reparation." It survives in one phrase, "to boot," meaning "in addition." You can see the connection between this word and "good" in our use of "better" to mean simply a return to normal ("It's all better.") The other O.E. word that had a parallel function, selig, has an even odder survival in Modern English, though in German it still means "blessed, happy." From this notion of "blessedness" still present in German, it passed in English to mean "innocent," and thence "naive," and finally to "silly," which is how it is used now (terminal "g" became "y" fairly early in English).

Bad is something of a mystery word: it doesn't appear in English until the end of the 13th century and it has no apparent relatives in other languages. It just possibly comes from two derogatory terms for homosexuals, b&#aelig;ddel and b&#aelig;dling, in Old English.

Evil, the older word, has grown worse in meaning as "bad" took its place as the opposite of "good," and "extreme moral wickedness" came to be its principal meaning.

Worse and worst go back to prehistoric Germanic wersizon, a comparative form of wers- which also gave English "war."


The pronoun of the second person in English grammar used to break down like this:

Nominative singular: THOU

Nominative plural: YE

Objective singular: THEE

Objective plural: YOU

In the Middle Ages, people began to use plural forms in all cases, at first as a sign of respect to superiors, then as a courtesy to equals. By the 1600s, the singular forms had come to represent familiarity and lack of status, and fell from use except in the case of a few dialects, notably in the industrial north of England. People in Lancashire north of the Rossendale Forest and Yorkshire used to be well known for their use of the singular second person pronouns tha (nom.) and thee (acc.). For religious reasons, the Quakers also retained the familiar forms, though generally in such a way that thee was used in all cases, along with the third person of the verb (thee has where grammar would dictate thou hast), and they brought it to America, where it was current in entire neighborhoods of Philadelphia till the 1890s and in some farms in the hinterland for perhaps another generation after that.

So what began as a clear distinction based on number turned into a distinction based on formality and social status.

Languages like Japanese and (especially) Indonesian have a variety of words for "you" depending on the social status of the speaker and addressee(s). "It's a nightmare trying to determine which form to use so that you won't offend anyone," an online friend once told me.

Otto Jespersen, in "Philosophy of Grammar" (1924), briefly traced the reason that the plural came to mean the formal in the second person pronoun in Indo-European languages. "When a person speaks of himself as "we" instead of "I" it may in some cases be due to a modest reluctance to obtrude his own person on his hearers or readers; he hides his own opinion or action behind that of others. But the practice may even more frequently be due to a sense of superiority, as in the 'plural of majesty.' This was particularly influential in the case of the Roman emperors who spoke of themselves as nos and required to be addressed as vos. This in course of time led to the French way of addressing all superiors (and later through courtesy all equals, especially strangers) with the plural pronoun vous. In the Middle Ages this fashion spread to many countries."

Jespersen gives several instances of the "plural of social inequality" from Italian, Danish and Russian, along with illustrations of the grammatical irregularities that often result, and concludes, "Politeness and servility are not always free from a comic tinge."

An author from 1653 wrote that the use of "thou" was generally contemptuous, or "familiar caressing," and that custom required the plural "you" when addressing one person.

In English, the shift can be illustrated by the persistence of the Quakers in using thee when speaking to one person, which began as a provocative and deliberate flouting of custom in the name of social equality and ended up being a mere peculiarity of speech, not recognized as anti-social by themselves or by non-Quakers.

"God is no respecter of persons" was one of the Quakers' favorite lines from the Bible. In their own apologies, their speech peculiarity was lumped with other social causes. Robert Proud, in his "History of Pennsylvania in North America" (1797), wrote of, "Their disuse of vain compliments, and flattering titles, bowing, kneeling, and uncovering the head to mankind; and their using the singular language, thou and thee, to a single person, in discourse, according to the true form of speech, though so contrary to the general practice of people in common; believing all tokens of adoration and worship belong to God only; and that plain, but civil language, and true speeches are most becoming to professors and followers of truth."

William Penn hinted that that early Quakers found this deliberate flouting of linguistic convention a useful way to provoke their enemies: "They also used the plain language of thou and thee to a single person, whatsoever was his degree among men. And, indeed, the wisdom of God, was much seen, in bringing forth this people, in so plain an appearance: for it was a close and distinguishing test upon the spirits of those, they came among; shewing their insides, and what predominated, notwithstanding their high and great profession of religion. This among the rest, sounded so harsh to many of them, that they took very great offence at it; forgetting the language they use to God, in their prayers, and the common stile of the scriptures; and that it is an absolute and essential propriety of speech." ("Rise and Progress of the Quakers," 1694)

By the early 1800s, however, the use was no longer felt as disrespectful, merely quaint.

In the King James Version, God is addressed in the familiar -- "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done," etc. Someone said this is to emphasize that the God of the Bible is not an unapproachable ruler but a God who has a relationship with his people. I don't know, but many modern people only encounter thee and thou in biblical speech, and, since people seem to think of God as mighty and remote, they probably hear thee as a marker of servility and respect. Thus the once-too-familiar pronoun now has the reputation of being servile.

In the Quaker communities it had the same effect, I think. They were a serious, weighty sect, usually well-off, always from the oldest families. Their gravity commanded respect, and non-Quakers in 19th century Pennsylvania almost always seem to have used "thee" when addressing them.

The awkwardness of not having a true singular "you" has led some languages and dialect to invent one. According to a posting on a listserv that I subscribe to, The Dutch plural, jij, was used as polite singular until by the 16th century the true singular, du, was a literary rarity. But then jij itself began to be felt as too intimate or condescending for a "plural of social inequality," and it was replaced by Uwe Edelheid, meaning "Your Nobility," later shortened to U E and then U, and recently in spelling lowercased to u. Meanwhile, a new familiar plural jullie has appeared, and a dialect singular form, gij, has got into standard Dutch as dialectal/biblical/poetic.

In the American South, there is a real grammatical difference between "you" (singular) and "you all" (plural). Other regions of the nation ridicule this as redneck ignorance, but it compensates well for the loss of the distinction between the singular and plural second person pronouns. It is accepted even among the most educated and literate Southerners.


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