Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Do You Do or Don’t You?

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, TX.

If you have taught English for any length of time, you have heard frustrated students bemoan the cornucopia of grammar exceptions to the rules. Their frustration is easy to understand. After all, when students first start studying English grammar, the patterns are simple. As students progress, the rules become tangled until they seem to be upside down and inside out. However, if we remind students to look at grammar as a function of communication, they will have an easier time as they advance in their studies.

One example of a confusing rule is the do-insertion before action verbs in statements. This occurs when we want to stress an action by inserting do (or its forms) before a verb. For example, if you said, “Maria doesn’t want to go to the movies with us,” but Maria hears you and insists this isn’t true by saying, “Yes, I do want to go with you,” the do-insertion emphasizes that she wants to go.

Many grammar books omit the do-insertion because it would be easy for students to assume do + base verb is used all the time. We often see this when students use did + base verb for every positive simple past tense verb, alleviating any need to learn the past participles (until students advance to using past participles as adjectives). The do-insertion may also be overused since do is the auxiliary verb for yes/no questions, which leads to do as the verb for the short answer, “Do you want to discuss grammar phenomena over coffee?” “Yes, I do.”

I don’t usually teach the do-insertion to basic or low intermediate students so as not to confuse them and to prevent bad grammar habits. When I teach this concept to high intermediate or advanced students, I give the example of being reproached for not doing a required task at work or school since either of these situations are relatable. I use the example of my being required to turn in grades by a certain date. If my program director told me, “You did not turn in your grades on time,” but I know I did, I would say, “I did turn them,” to emphasize that I completed the task.

By no means am I a linguist or an expert on how the English language evolved. However, I find it poignant that hundreds of years ago, as people were going about their lives, gossiping, scolding children, discussing the weather, they each influenced English. Granted, each person had only a minute affect on English, but summatively, the affects were glacial–slowly shaping the landscape of language over hundreds of years. And we see this happening today, like way faster because of the internet and whatever (tongue in cheek).

But back to the do-insertion. I learned it is also called the periphrastic do, and like any good grammatical discussion, there is a debate on how the do-insertion began.

One stalwart theory was developed by Swedish linguist Alvar Ellegård in his 1953 doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg. He says its usage became popular during Middle English and Early Modern English (Ogura,1993). I couldn’t find a digital copy of this book (I guess Google hasn’t gotten to it yet) and I could not find a short description of his theory written by Ellegård himself.

However, I found a paper by Patricia Proussa from the Fifth International Conference on English Historical Linguistic, in which she disagrees with Ellegård’s theory that the periphrastic do appeared in Middle English because he based his theory on writings from that time (1990). She asserts the do-insertion comes from the Celtic language. When native Celtic speakers began learning Old English, they transferred words and patterns into the new language, which propagated over time. So she says the do-insertion is even older than Ellegård thought, and researchers need to consider that speaking comes before writing in language development.

Anyone who has learned another language has experienced transference of patterns from one language to another. I remember taking German in high school and not understanding why I couldn’t say the word-for-word equivalent of “Do you have a cat?” In German, you would say, “Have you a cat?” (Again the infamous do appears!) Regrettably, it took me many years before I understood there is no word-for-word translation from one language to another, and I had to think of grammar patterns as a way to communicate.

All language is communication, and all communication is some kind of language. Spoken and written language developed out of the need to communicate. As we teach our students, let us remind them of this. Their goal should be to communicate clearly and not grammatically perfectly.


Ogura, M. (1993). The development of periphrastic do in English: A case of lexical diffusion in syntax. [Abstract]. Diachronica, 10(1), 51 –85. doi: 10.1075/dia.10.1.04ogu

Poussa, P. (1990). A contact-universals origin for periphrastic do, with special consideration of OE-Celtic Contact. In S. M. Adamson and et. al (Eds.), Papers from the 5th international conference on English historical linguistics (pp. 407-434) Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamin Publishing Company. Retrieved from

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