A former lecturer of mine once explained why, from a syntactic point of view, the English rule that negation and questions are formed with the auxiliary do follows from other syntactic facts about English.

More precisely, if you gave a good syntactician not familiar with English a corpus of English sentences containing everything but questions and negated phrases, then s/he could infer grammatical rules from it (such as headed-ness of phrases, what kind of arguments what word takes, etc.) From some of these rules, then, s/he could see that something specific would be wrong with the sentences "Gave you the present to Mary?" and "He went not to the cinema."

Can someone explain what exactly this something is and how it follows from other sentences?

FYI, my lecturer did this in Government & Binding with X-Bar theory. This may be more suitable a question for the proposed linguistics.stackexchange.com but as it's not online yet I'm trying it here first.

Edit: the beta is online now at https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/.

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    This may be too linguisticky to fit on this site. I will leave it to others to decide if it is "English" enough.
    – Kosmonaut
    Dec 29, 2010 at 5:18
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    Maybe it's not a good example, but Tolkein's writing contains many examples of sentences like "Gave you the present to Mary?" or "He went not to the cinema" and to me, as a native speaker, they do not sound wrong as much as they sound old-fashioned. I have no problem with those sentences at all. Jan 6, 2011 at 15:30
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    I recall that I asked exactly the same question in the lecture, just with the works of Jane Austen instead of Tolkien. The reply is: This form reflects an older state of the language and has not yet been removed from it, even if the grammar around it has changed. It is evident that they are "special" forms. They don't sound wrong to you because you have seen them often, but they are exceptions to the normal grammar of English. Therefore, it is clear that Jane Austen's and Tolkien's grammar was an intermediate form of the language. Jan 6, 2011 at 17:48
  • @Felix: I'm with @Mr. Shiny -- those sentences aren't wrong; they're just old in form...
    – SamB
    Jan 14, 2011 at 20:21
  • @SamB: yes, did you read what I wrote? (or: read you what I wrote?) Jan 15, 2011 at 0:27

4 Answers 4


Disclaimer 1: I do morphology, not syntax.
Disclaimer 2: The theoretical stuff is Chomskyan syntax, not proven fact.

In any case, the need for do in English is commonly known informally as "do-support". In Chomskyan syntax, the need for do arises from the fact that there is no movement from the head of the Verb Phrase (VP) to the Tense or Inflection Phrase (TP or IP) in English (in contrast to languages like French). (The only exception is the verb "to be" — this verb does raise from V to T.)

So, I guess any English sentences that show a lack of V-to-T movement would infer that do-support or something similar must be used.

One possibility to show this:

  • English: I often eat apples.
  • French: Je mange souvent les pommes. (Literal: I eat often the apples.)

In English, this adverb (often) appears before the main verb, while in French, it (souvent) appears after the main verb. The reason for the difference is that the adverb is located between T and V in French, and the verb raises from V up into T, above the adverb. In English, the verb remains in place below.

Note: the following diagram is overly simplified so that we ignore that the subject noun actually raised into its position also — this stuff is confusing enough already :) alt text

The issues with negation and question formation both follow from the lack of V-to-T movement we see with the adverb ordering. For questions, T moves to C, and so a helper verb is needed since the main verb never made it to T. For negation, I think "not" blocks the passing of tense features from T down to V, so do is required in order to host the tense features (e.g. "do", "does", "did").

Also note that when modal or helper verbs are used (would, could, have, be, etc.), the helper verbs start out on T, so there is no need for do-support.

  • Good answer. I wasn't aware of the theory at work here, though to put it rather mildly, I can't say I'm a fan of much of Chomsky's work.
    – Jon Purdy
    Dec 29, 2010 at 7:59
  • Thanks! Good to know. (This sparks the question: in I often ate apples, how did ate get its tense?) Anyway, you've explained this really well. Can someone +1 for me? My reputation is too low :( Dec 29, 2010 at 15:10
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    @Felix: I think ate gets its tense feature passed down from T, which it can do if there is no negation blocking it. @Jon Purdy: You'll get no argument from me if you're not a Chomskyan linguistics fan.
    – Kosmonaut
    Dec 29, 2010 at 16:05
  • @Kosmonaut: Bleh, we don't use much of Chomsky's at the classics department, and I can see why. The Wiki page on X-bar Theory is a nightmare to me. I think I got the gist of it, and it was in my linguistics book long ago, but that is not enough to understand all of what you are saying here. I thought I got VP and TP, but not any more. I don't quite understand what you mean by "movement from VP to TP": what is it that moves? The verb? I know what raising is, but I don't see that in these sentences? If only I had a link that explained this in plain words... or should I ask a Question here? Jan 4, 2011 at 3:35
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    @AlexB.: Hmm even after a year and a half, I still don't understand it. Even less than I did at the time, probably: as much as I like Kosmonaut, even he was unable to dumb down Chomsky enough for me. It looks like an English text where every other word has been replaced by a random letter-number combination. I'll be in the Linguistics room if you're in the mood! But keep in mind that I am a bit recalcitrant. Jun 7, 2012 at 1:28

The assertion is false, at least as you've restated it here. Consider: if I were presented with such a corpus, then, yes, I'd assume that "Gave you the present to Mary?" was probably incorrect, since without questions or negative sentences to work from, I'd not have seen the re-ordering of subject and verb that takes place in that sort of sentence. I would not, however, have any way to conclude that the correct sentence is actually "Did you give the present to Mary?" because the inversion as well as the introduction of the useless auxiliary "do" are quite irregular features, and I would assume from my limited knowledge that "did you give" is actually more incorrect than "gave you", because it makes two alterations to the declarative equivalent.


(I was writing this for a question that got closed as a duplicate of this (Why must “not” frequently be paired with “do”?), so sorry if it's not quite right.)

If you say "I not like him" what do you mean? You need a helper verb there to correctly express the meaning:

I am not like him

You are dissimilar to him

I do not like him

You dislike him

Without the helper verb your sentence is ambiguous.

As another example: "I not like him if X" where X is some reason for not liking him. you need a helper verb to determine if he is likely to do something you won't like him for:

I will not like him if he tries to go dutch

This is something you are guaranteeing, and you think the antecedent is likely (he is likely to try to go dutch).

I would not like him if he got fat

You don't think the antecedent is likely (he is unlikely to get fat) but if he did you would stop liking him.

For the converse situation, "I like not this coat", you are not negating the action (liking), but the noun itself (this coat). This does not require a helper verb, because there is no ambiguity in your action.


According to this page, it seems to have to do with a category of English verbs called modals (the ones used for conditionals, e.g., could, will, etc.). Basically, if a sentence doesn't contain a modal, it needs an auxiliary do to be negated or turned into a question (see examples 13-16 there).

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    The page does say that, but unless I'm missing something, it's slightly inaccurate. The correction would be: "Basically, if a sentence doesn't contain an auxiliary verb, it needs an auxiliary do [...] ." That is, any auxiliary verb is sufficient, not just a modal. Here are some questions where the subject is inverted with non-modal be and have: Were you arrested? Is she driving? Have you seen them? May 14, 2011 at 3:06

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