Definition and Examples of Pro-Verbs in English

A soccer player who enters the game as a substitute for another player
Like a soccer player who enters the game as a substitute for another player, a pro-verb takes the place of another verb. AMA / Corbis via Getty Images

In English grammar, a proverb is a type of substitution in which a verb or verb phrase (such as do or do so) takes the place of another verb, usually to avoid repetition.

Modeled on the term pronoun, pro-verb was coined by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (The Philosophy of Grammar, 1924), who also considered the functions of pro-adjectives, pro-adverbs, and pro-infinitives. The grammatical term pro-verb shouldn't be confused with the literary and rhetorical term proverb, a concise statement of a general truth.

Examples and Observations

"In its . . . auxiliary use, the relation of do to verbs is similar to that of pronouns to nouns: You could call do in this function a 'proverb.'

(34a) We want that trophy more than they do.
(34b) I'll taste your raw-beet casserole if Fred does.

In the first example, do stands for want that trophy, and in the second, does substitutes for tastes your raw-beet casserole." - (Thomas P. Klammer, Muriel R. Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar, 5th ed. Pearson Education, 2007)

"Animals suffer as much as we do." -(Albert Schweitzer)

"A child needs respect as do we adults." -(Zeus Yiamouyiannis, "Subverting the Capitalist Model for Education." Educating Tomorrow's Valuable Citizen, ed. by Joan N. Burstyn. SUNY Press, 1996)

"Yes, sure, I like it. I really do." -(Robert Stone, Damascus Gate. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998)

"'Haven't you heard? She thinks I'm talented,' I said dryly. 'I thought you did, too.'" - (V.C Andrews, Dawn. Pocket Books, 1990)

"Why, I must confess that I love him better than I do Bingley." -(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813)

"I love him better than I do you and all I hope is that you will find someone that will suit you as well as he does me." -(Ruth Karr McKee, Mary Richardson Walker: Her Book, 1945)

"No one knows better than I do, or can appreciate more keenly than I can, the value of the services you have rendered me and the satisfactory results of your friendly interest in me." -(John Roy Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch, ed. by John Hope Franklin. University of Chicago Press, 1970)

"[I]t's extremely difficult to narrate something like, say, a murder or rape in first-person present tense (though quite a few of my students have tried). Doing so often leads to unintentionally comic sentences." -(David Jauss, On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft . Writer's Digest Books, 2011)

Pro-verb Do as a Responsive

"The use of the proverb do as a responsive is so productive that it occurs even when do does not appear in the preceding allocution as in (19):

(19) A: Well, you remember, say, the troubles round here you know {}
(19) B: Yeah, I do.
(Ulster 28)

In example (19) the pro-verb do rather than the lexical verb remember is employed. Based on this evidence, it is therefore inaccurate to say that what is being echoed or repeated in the responsive is the verb of the preceding allocation. Clearly, it is the pure nexus or the pro-verb do (the nexus marker) rather than the predicate remember that is being repeated." -(Gili Diamant, "The Responsive System of Irish English." New Perspectives on Irish English, ed. by Bettina Migge and Máire Ní Chiosáin. John Benjamins, 2012)

Pro-verbs vs. Pronouns

"I asked him to leave and he did.

Did is a proverb, used as a substitute for a verb just as a pronoun is a substitute for a noun. This is intuitively very comfortable, until we take a careful look. Even though the pronoun is conceptually unmotivated it is at least morphologically motivated as a separate part of speech. But the proverb is in no way a distinct part of speech; it is just as much a verb as the verb it replaces. Now, of course, no one has said that the proverb is a distinct part of speech, yet certainly the intuitive satisfaction we get from it is directly dependent on the parallel with the pronoun, and if it weren't for the pronoun the new term would never have found currency. So instead of having a coherent theory in traditional grammar, one whose parts are integrated according to well-motivated, carefully controlled principles, we have something that is built up by free association." -(William Diver, Joseph Davis, and Wallis Reid, "Traditional Grammar and Its Legacy in Twentieth-Century Linguistics." Language: Communication and Human Behavior: The Linguistic Essays of William Diver, ed. by Alan Huffman and Joseph Davis. Brill, 2012)

Style Note on Generic Do

"Sometimes, when writers are unable to think of the precise verb to complete a sentence, they simply plug in 'do'; for example, 'They did the rumba' rather than 'They danced the rumba.' When it does not refer back to a previously used verb, 'do' is not a pro-form. It is a generic verb, from the top of the ladder of generalization, and people often resort to using it simply because they are unable to come up with a more accurate verb, and 'do' will suffice in most cases. Take, for example, the now popular saying, 'Let's do lunch.' But because of its lack of specificity, 'do' often results in lifeless sentences, and therefore writers should avoid using it (except as a pro-form of auxiliary). Used as a generic verb, 'do' does not create textual cohesion." -(Colleen Elaine Donnelly, Linguistics for Writers. SUNY Press, 1994)

Do and Happen

"The only members of the class of 'pro-verb' are do and happen. These stand for any unidentified or unspecified process, do for actions and happen for events (or for actions encoded receptively, in some kind of passive form). Their occurrence does not necessarily involve an anaphoric or cataphoric reference." -(M.A.K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, Cohesion in English. Longman, 1976)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Pro-Verbs in English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Pro-Verbs in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Pro-Verbs in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).