Certainly in other languages like my native Swedish, a negative is expressed with the verb followed by not.

Jag pratar inte Svenska = I speak not Swedish = I do not speak Swedish

In English, however, a negative is expressed in a very odd way.

I do not speak Swedish.

The DO NOT seems to me, to be a double negative, and should cancel itself out to leave - I speak Swedish!

In older styles of English, certainly language around the time of Shakespeare, it was common to write: I speak not. I speak no. = I do not speak.

How did the verb in bold evolve to the I do not speak construction that we use today?

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    It's not a double negative - "do" is not negative in any way.
    – IanF1
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 17:13
  • 1
    Obligatory Yoda: "do or do not, there is no try." How is that translated into other languages?
    – IanF1
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 17:14
  • 3
    The syntactic rule you're asking about is called Do-Support. It's invoked as a sort of auxiliary supply station for various other rules that cumulatively make sure that the second constituent in an English sentence is normally an inflected verb. These are discussed here. Commented May 19, 2015 at 17:15
  • With transitive verbs you can shift the negation to the object, e.g. I speak no Swedish. There are a wide variety of set phrases like make no mistake or tell no lies formulated this way, but outside of them, I would consider it too formal in conversational American English. Thus, I didn't tell anyone is preferable to I told no one, outside of a courtroom. I work no night shifts this month, but ten in June is borderline, I ride no buses through that neighborhood is right out, and I like no alcohol is fightin' words.
    – choster
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 17:32
  • @choster But I definitely do like no alcohol! (See what I did there?) Also, some adverbs require negating the object rather than the verb: “I see absolutely no point in this” cannot be “*I don't see absolutely any point in this”, though it's roughly equivalent to “I absolutely don't see any point in this”. Commented May 20, 2015 at 9:58

3 Answers 3


'Do' is an auxiliary verb here, not a negation itself, so this is not a double negative. 'Do' introduces the emphatic case, and it can be used in the positive sense (such as "I do protest!"), but is most often used for the negative in modern English. It's just an idiom, and you can still use the negative alone, as you pointed out, but that will sound poetic or old fashioned to a native speaker. It probably came about by abusing the emphatic form for negations over time, but I'm not sure. Today, in my opinion, you get an emphatic negation by not using the contraction: "I do not want this." vs. "I don't want this."


It is my understanding that this non-meaning 'do' is actually a remnant of old Welsh and Gaelic; and that in fact these two languages are virtually the only other languages other than English that utilize this bizarre phrasing. It actually stemmed from using the word 'do' to indicate the predicate of any sentence. The 'do' signified that the word following it was indeed a verb. Over the centuries, English has retained this usage only in negative or question sentences.

  • 1
    Are you saying that English was affected by speakers of Welsh and/or Gaelic? At what point was the influence? Did do-support appear in Old English (before 1066) or after? Any reference for this?
    – Mitch
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 2:58
  • @Mitch: Welsh is one of the few languages that uses do in this way, along with Cornish. As far as I know, do-support (as it’s called) wasn’t present in English until the 1100s at the earliest. It stands to reason that English picked it up from contact with those neighbouring languages. I first learned of this from Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 3:09
  • The passage in question: “Did I open?” = “Nes i agor?” / “I did not open.” = “Nes i ddim agor.” / “I opened.” = “Nes i agor.” The last example is used non-emphatically as late as Elizabethan English: “I did open the door for thee.”
    – Jon Purdy
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 3:15
  • Though it is used only occasionally in colloquial language, German knows the negation with do+not as well.
    – rogermue
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 6:44
  • Goidelic languages do not use any kind of do-support. Nor did Welsh, typically, back in the 1100s, for that matter. I admit the only Middle Welsh I've read is Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuot, but there is no do-support at all in there (‘he does not go’, for instance, is nyd a with a simple negating ny(d) and nothing else). Later Welsh does develop a kind of do-support (though really it's more of a be-support), but I believe that actually postdates the English version. Commented May 20, 2015 at 9:49

What would be the outcome of contractions of a lot of verbs with -n't? A lot of verbs would change their shape.

  • He camen't - Would it become "He cain't"? If this system had become the normal thing English would have got a lot of irregular verb forms.

I consider it an ingenious invention of the English language that this problem was avoided. By using the negation with don't/doesn't/didn't English has only a handful of special contractions such as can't, shan't, won't and ain't.

  • Why would camen’t become *cain’t? The only verb that changes (optionally) like that when negated is isn’t -> ain’t, which is already highly irregular and suppletive. Will -> won’t and shall -> shan’t have been simplified a bit too, but again, they're also highly irregular to begin with. That doesn't mean regular verbs (or even other irregular ones) would do the same: may and have are irregular but just become mayn’t and haven’t, for instance. Commented May 20, 2015 at 9:54

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