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Modern English seems to require this verb in several circumstances, where most other European languages don't seem to need it. (See? I just used it.)

For example, in questions: "Do you have a dog?" Whereas, "Have you a dog?" would be normal in other languages or in the English of days gone by.

Another example: "I do not know him." Again, "I know him not," could be used, but sounds stilted nowadays.

So, where did this 'do' come from?

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Related, but theory-specific explanation for the use of do. But really, I think English works this way "because it does", just like many languages leave their question words in situ while others move them to the beginning of the sentence. Or how some languages have negative concord, while others don't. – Kosmonaut Jan 3 '11 at 21:59
"Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue" by John McWhorter goes over some of the more obscure aspects of English history, including the meaningless do. I don't have my copy available, but I remember there was something about early Celtic and Welsh influence that did it. – Jon Purdy Jan 3 '11 at 23:21
By the way, the reason do, of all verbs, would be chosen for this job is that it is a very common light verb. It doesn't have a lot of semantic content embedded into it. Many languages employ light verbs for various functions. – Kosmonaut Jan 4 '11 at 1:15
In Ireland you also hear "do" + verb for habitual actions. For example, "I do go there on a Friday" means "I usually go there on Fridays". – Antony Quinn Jan 4 '11 at 10:44
To elaborate on @Jon's comment, if I remember correctly McWhorter says that Welsh and other early Celtic languages had essentially the same type of do- construction, and he speculates that this is where it came from ... the Celtic inhabitants of England, who were conquered but not wiped out, adopted the AngloSaxon vocabulary, but some aspects of Celtic grammar remain in English. The alternative is to assume that English just by chance adapted the same relatively rare grammatical construction the dead Celtic language in the area had used. – Peter Shor Jun 6 '12 at 13:48

Constructions using the equivalent of "do" as an auxiliary for reasons of emphasis or particular meanings are known in other languages.

An example that comes to mind is Middle Welsh: In the Mabinogion, for example the phrase "oruc ... a" occurs often before another verb, and means "did and ..." or "made and ...".

It is also theorised that the "-d/t" ending of weak Germanic past tenses (eg "walked") is a remnant of an ancestor of "did", so "walked" comes originally from the collocation "walk did" (not in English but in an ancestor language).

In modern standard English we use "do" in the affirmative only for emphasis or ("I do want it"), but in some dialects, and in older forms (eg Shakespeare), it is more common. In fact in Shakespeare, we find both affirmative and negative sentences with and without "do".

I have a theory about why "do" has spread to be compulsory in the negative in modern English: I think that Jespersen's Cycle operated to create an anomalous Head-modifier construction ("I go not", where the "not" follows the head word "go"), and the modern form has spread because it is more normal in English constructions for the modifier to precede the head ("I don't go"). I've not seen this idea suggested anywhere else, though the application of Jespersen's Cycle to Old English is well established.

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Isn't the apparently arbitrary Shakespeare use of do attributed to poetic license, so he could follow theatrical stylistic guideline? – Eldroß Jan 17 '11 at 8:19
I don't know, is it? What "theatrical stylistic guideline" are you referring to? No doubt his choice of when to use "do" and when not to is partly determined by rhythm and metre, but it's clear that both options were available to him. – Colin Fine Jan 17 '11 at 10:21
+1, First time I come across this theory. Interesting. – Alain Pannetier Φ Jul 1 '11 at 13:52

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