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Much ado about ‘do’

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© GETTYIn Act 2, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio enters the stage and asks: ‘Where the devil should this Romeo be? Came he not home tonight?’ Then in the next act, Benvolio urges his cousin Romeo: ‘Begone! Stand not amazed.’ Both quotations are distinctly Shakespearean – we notice there’s something syntactically different about them even before we pinpoint what it is.

In both cases it’s the lack of the auxiliary verb do and the corresponding change in word order. This was characteristic of English in Shakespeare’s time. Today we would automatically include do in constructing those lines. For Came he not home we would say Did he not [or Didn’t he] come home? For Stand not amazed we would say Do not [or Don’t] stand amazed. The auxiliary do is necessary unless we want to sound archaic.

The most familiar verbs are often the most complicated. Run and set, for example, have many uses and meanings across a range of grammatical categories, and they’re also used in a huge variety of phrases and expressions. Do is similarly complex, and it’s used in grammatical structures that are integral to English, including the interrogative and negative uses we saw in the examples above.

Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for do lays out the territory in accessible fashion, briefly explaining each type of use. These include the ordinary transitive verb (Do this), ordinary intransitive verb (That’ll do), intransitive verb substitute (She writes better than I do), auxiliary verb in tag questions (You didn’t look, did you?), and, as we’ve seen, auxiliary verb in questions and negatives (Do you see? I don’t see).

Sometimes auxiliary do is inessential but included anyway. In ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all’, from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, it is semantically superfluous, since the meaning of Conscience makes cowards of us all is basically the same. But do in this position was common in Shakespeare’s time, as Lane Greene notes. Nowadays it often serves to emphasise the verb following it – see sense 3 in Macmillan’s entry.

Some of Shakespeare’s do’s are routine. When Frederick asks, in As You Like It, ‘How dost thou, Charles?’, he’s using an older form of do in sense 7, which is for talking about health, success, or someone’s general situation. When Lady Macbeth says, ‘give me your hand. What’s / done cannot be undone’, she makes poetic use of sense 4 of the verb: to ‘perform an action, activity, or job’.

Do has noun uses too, referring to a social event or hairstyle, or in the awkwardly punctuated do’s and don’ts, and it features in various phrases that can be tricky for learners to get a handle on. But the verb uses of do are where the action is (or where it ‘does be’, as we may say in Irish English), and through Shakespeare we see how that action’s expression has changed over time.

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Stan Carey

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