Notes on 'Do': 10 Things You Can Do With the Verb 'Do'

Notes on Do
Poster by J. Howard Miller, created in 1942 for Westinghouse Electric. (John Parrot/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images)

Think of the word do as the utility infielder in the game of grammar: it can be called on to play any one of several different positions in a sentence.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers 36 definitions of the verb do (not counting its uses in countless phrases) and seven definitions of the noun. Both a lexical verb and one of the three primary auxiliaries, do (along with the forms does, did, and done) is the third most frequently used verb in English.

As an auxiliary (or helping verb), do is sometimes called an "empty" verb or a "dummy operator" because it has no meaning of its own. But do have some respect for this dummy. As we'll see, do stays busy, and we'd have a tough time communicating without it.

  1. Idioms and Collocations
    As a lexical verb, do indicates action of some kind and often hooks up with nouns denoting more specific activities. Here are some common do and done expressions: do an about-face, do any good, do as I say, do away with, do blindfolded, do the dishes, do a double take, do homework, do the honors, do in, do a job on, do justice to, do no good, do or die, do out of, do over, do tell, do time, do the trick, do up, do well, do without
    done deal, done for, done in, done to death, done to a turn, easier said than done, good as done, over and done with, what's done is done, when all is said and done
  2. Substitutions
    Do also functions as a pro-verb, filling in for any number of other verbs. The expressions do so, do it, and do that commonly refer to actions that have previously been identified: If you want to fire me, please do so.
    I had put off mailing the application and finally decided just to do it.
    She thought I'd left without telling anyone, but I would never do that. All three expressions serve as substitutes for other verbs (in these examples, go, mail, and leave). Do so tends to be a tad more formal than do it and do that.
  3. Multiple Dos
    It's not unusual for more than one do to show up in a sentence. How do you do?
    What do you do for a living?
    How do you find time to do all that you do? (Without resorting to doo doo jokes or the chorus to Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side," see if you can outdo that last example.)
  4. Wh- Questions
    In many questions that begin with a wh- word (who, what, when, where, why, and—oops—how), a form of do comes before the main verb: What do you want?
    Where did Cheeta put the bananas? When did follows a wh- word, it's often contracted to /d/ in informal speech and written as 'd: Where'd Cheeta put the bananas?
  5. Yes-No Questions
    We can fashion a yes-no question by placing a form of do in front of the subject: Do you enjoy listening to lectures?
    Does anybody know what time it is?
    Did your sister go out this morning? The use of do in questions is called do-support or do-insertion.
  6. Negatives
    By adding not (or the contraction n't) to do, does, or did, we can create a negative sentence: Many workaholics do not enjoy their jobs.
    Casper doesn't believe in ghosts.
    Nyla didn't like the cold weather. In a negative imperative with the copula be, do not (or don't) appears in front of be: Do not be afraid.
    Don't be so self conscious. As you can see, present and past endings become part of do and not part of the main verb that follows it.
  7. Tag Questions
    A question added to a declarative sentence to check or clarify information is called a tag question. Customarily, a negative declarative takes a positive tag question, while a positive declarative takes a negative tag: You don't trust me, do you?
    You do miss me, don't you? When there's no auxiliary verb in the main clause, a form of the "dummy operator" do is used in the tag: Your sister loves to play pranks, doesn't she?
  8. Emphasis
    In declarative sentences, do, does, and did can be used for emphasis: You do need to be honest with your child.
    Despite what you think, I did enjoy the play. In speech, emphatic do is usually stressed.
  9. Imperatives
    The emphatic do can show up at the beginning of an imperative sentence, usually to make it sound less abrupt: Do stop by when you're in the neighborhood. But notice that this do isn't always so friendly: Do shut up, Hyacinth. Truth be told, this version of the emphatic do probably occurs more often in 19th-century novels than in actual conversations.
    In some cases, do can also replace the whole imperative: "I'll see to it this evening," the lawyer said.
    "Yes, please do," I said.
  10. Omissions in Comparative Clauses
    In a comparative clause, we can use a form of do to avoid repeating part of the main clause: The Pritchetts work much harder than we do.
    Gloria drives much faster than Jay does. In these examples, do is considered a stranded operator--an auxiliary that stands alone without a main verb alongside it.

Is this the final word on do? Hardly. For one thing, there's the extraordinarily vague do in the Nike slogan "Just do it." For another there's the do in Frank Sinatra's scat line "Do-be do-be do." Then there's Fred Flintstone's memorable exclamation, "Yabba Dabba Do!" But before things get too silly, this will simply have to do.