In "Verbs and Tenses" by George Davidson, the author discusses how to form questions in English. One of the rules presented was if the declarative statement doesn't contain an auxiliary to front, "do" is used. For example: He likes Susan / Does he like Susan?

I noticed that in all of the declarative sentence examples one could switch in "do" or "did" to indicate the tense of the sentence. For example, "He cooked dinner," could be expressed "He did cook dinner." "He likes Susan." could also be expressed "He does like Susan."

I can't remember all of the examples but I remember seeing this construction a lot in "older" English. I put older in quotes because I don't know the exact time and I understand this is important when talking about the historical development of English. I think Shakespeare uses this construction. Perhaps "He doth protest too much."

I also noticed that the "s" in "does" gets shifted to the verb and that the "d" in "did" gets shifted. "He does go to London." becomes "He goes to London." The "do" is dropped and the "es" gets shifted to "go" In "He did ask a question." The "di" is dropped and the "d" is shifted to "ask." In modern English, we use "ed", but I think "askd" was acceptable at one time. (perhaps I am mistaken on this.)

My question: Was "do" a present and past tense marker in earlier forms of English?

  • 1
    According to John McWhorter, do was a feature of Welsh and Cornish and came into English that way. It's not present in the same way in the Germanic language tree. It began being used the way we do today in Middle English.
    – Robusto
    Nov 6, 2015 at 1:00
  • By the way, the rule is wrong as you stated it. Unless you meant "auxiliary verb" instead of "modal". The name of the rule is "Do-Support", and it is required in questions, negative, tags, and many other constructions when there is no auxiliary verb in a verb phrase. Nov 6, 2015 at 1:14
  • The idea of shifting 'es' is an odd notion. It presupposes that when we speak English we are somehow converting from one form to another. That would require an unnecessary cognitive load. The auxiliary verb 'to do' takes the bare infinitive in the main verb. When using 'do' you conjugate the verb 'to 'do' and when not using 'do', you conjugate the active verb. Nov 6, 2015 at 1:17
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    @JohnLawler yes, I meant to say auxiliary....I correct this just now. Nov 6, 2015 at 2:21
  • Most linguistic analyses say the tense gets attached to the first auxiliary verb if there is one, and many rules require such a verb. It's not so much a tense marker as a tense holder -- it's the stem to which the tense suffix is attached, if there is one. Nov 6, 2015 at 4:50

2 Answers 2


Yes, though I wouldn't call it a tense marker.

As well as its use in questions and negations. do may be used in declarative sentences in Modern English, in certain circumstances:

  • In contrast to a negative question or suggestion:

I know you don't like swimming. Yes, I do like swimming!

  • For emphasis or positive affect (often with an intensifier such as certainly or really:

I really do intend to get some work done today.

I do like ice cream.

He does look like his father, doesn't he!

You're right that Shakespeare used positive do apparently without any special meaning.

[Not an answer, but I think you're complicating matters by talking about moving the -es and the -d onto the main verb. If you find that a helpful mnemonic, fine, but it's not really what's happening.]

  • Colin, thank you. I find knowing the history of my language helps me teach it better but also helps with students who find English confusing or illogical. Nov 6, 2015 at 2:25

As I recall, Chomsky's 1957 analysis had an abstract part of the auxiliary system called EMPH (for emphasis) which required application of the Do-support rule even when there is no negation or inversion: "Henry DOES like fish." The apparently pointless abstraction always bothered me. Why not instead just suppose there are are auxiliaries "do"/"did" which express tense, and if they are stressed, remain, otherwise cause the following verbal element to be suffixed ("Affix-Hopping" of /-d/ or /-z/) and drop out?

So, if that's the idea behind the analysis you're talking about, yes, I like it. But I doubt it corresponds to what happened historically in English.

  • I'm mainly interested in the history and specifically how people viewed the world and expressed that through language. I asked a similar question about "am" which no one has answered. Perhaps in earlier language people identified with their subjects more. At least in English. I don't know about others. I don't think that "Latin doesn't do that so English shouldn't" is valid anymore. Nov 6, 2015 at 2:59

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