What's the grammatical logic of emphatic phrases like "I do eat sushi"?
To understand this, we need to think about constructions. And we also need to think about the fact that languages like English (as opposed to sign languages, for example) involve sound, even when written.
To appreciate this last point consider the following examples:
- plate, weight
- though, tough
Even though you read the examples above as black squiggles on your screen, you'll notice that the examples in (1) rhyme. And the examples in (2), which look the same don't. The reason is that the sounds in (1) are similar, but the sounds in (2) aren't.
English has a class of verbs which have certain syntactic properties, known 'auxiliary verbs'. These properties do not involve preceding another verb, but rather properties like being necessary for sentential negation, the ability to contract with not (or having negative inflections, if you prefer), the ability to invert with subjects in certain constructions and so forth.
English has a construction, or actually a family of closely related constructions, which emphasise the positive or negative polarity of the sentences they occur in. These usually contrast with an idea of the opposite polarity, often previously mentioned. Here are a couple of examples of such constructions:
- A: You can't make sushi
- B: I can make sushi! / I can too make sushi!
The interesting thing about these three constructions is that they all require an auxiliary verb and they all require stress on the auxiliary verb. Here's what happens if there's no auxiliary:
- A: You don't make sushi.
- B1: ? I make sushi! (Contrasts making with, for example, buying or eating)
- B2: *I make too sushi! (ungrammatical)
Two particular tensed constructions in English don't use auxiliary verbs: the present simple and past simple. When these constructions combine with other constructions that require auxiliary verbs, there is a special come-to-the-rescue verb, auxiliary do, sometimes known as 'supportive do* or dummy do:
- *I like not cheese. [ungrammatical in modern English]
- I do not like cheese.
- *You like cheese, like you? [ungrammatical]
- You like cheese, do you?
- *Yes, I like
- Yes, I do
- I like [too] cheese. [not positive polarity emphatic].
- I do [too] like cheese.
The reasons that other languages do not need a support verb like do in positive polarity emphatic sentences may be any of the following (plus several others):
- they do not have a class of syntactically distinguishable auxiliary verbs
- they always have auxiliary verbs and don't need a support verb
- they don't have emphatic constructions which require auxiliary verbs
The Julian Grenfell poem
This poem is the early twentieth-century version of Meatloaf's A Bat Out of Hell. It's a teenager's paean on maleness and virility, although unlike the Meatloaf version, with a hint of homoeroticism. There's a crucial difference, however, which we'll come to later. Here's the first and last verses of Hymn To The Wild Boar:
God gave the horse for man to ride
And steel wherewith to fight,
And wine to swell his soul with pride
And women for delight:
But a better gift than these all four
Was when He made the fighting boar.
Those ancient Jew boys went like stinks,
They knew not reck nor fear,
Noah knocked the first two jinks,
And Nimrod got the spear.
And ever since those times of yore
True men do ride the fighting boar.
The crucial difference between Hymn to the Wild Boar and Meatloaf's A Bat Out of Hell is that the former is the kind of thing that Boris Johnson the Oxford classicist would write if trying to emulate the teenage male virility of A Bat Out of Hell. Whilst Grenfell uses current and trendy (World War One) terminology like stink, and has stretches like God gave ... women for delight, it also uses archaic vocabulary and phrasing to make it grandiose and evocative of classic sagas (as Boris Johnson would approve of). In terms of vocabulary there are archaic terms like reck, and in terms of grammar there are uses, for example, of unstressed declarative periphrastic do, which I'll now explain.
In early sixteenth-century English, it was common to use auxiliary do in sentences using the present simple, where you could also instead just use the present tense form of the lexical/main verb. The examples in the following pairs were, therefore, exchangeable with no change of meaning:
- Loved Tom the woman? / Did Tom love the woman?
- I loved not the woman / I did not love the woman.
- I loved the woman / I did love the woman.
In the last, declarative examples, there was no difference in meaning regardless of the presence or absence of do, and the word do was typically unstressed.
By the eighteenth century, however, do in declarative sentences had become part of an emphatic construction as it still is today.
Grenfell's poem uses do in a line where, because of the metre of the poem, it clearly is not stressed. This is an archaic use of unstressed periphrastic declarative do which makes the poem seem older, grander and more classical than it really is.