'Do': The dummy operator


Have you ever thought about the word “do”? My advice is don’t.

The word “do” is one of the bugbears of English that make our language incredibly difficult to master — for nonnative speakers and even for people born into the English-speaking world. Almost no one fully understands “do.” The people who use it correctly do so through osmosis, not understanding.

To see what I mean, consider the formula for making questions in Latin-based languages like French. In other languages, to make a question, you often just take a statement and swap the places of the subject and verb. “Vous voulez fromage” (You want cheese) becomes a question when you switch the positions of the pronoun and the verb: “Voulez-vous fromage?” Simple.

There are exceptions, of course — situations trickier than this. But this is the basic formula. It’s called inversion, because you invert the position of the subject and verb.

Try that in English. “You want cheese.” “Want you cheese?” “He saw a great movie last weekend.” “Saw he a great movie last weekend?” As we’ll see in a minute, sometimes this process actually works in English.

But not in these examples. Examine all these questions and you can see that something is missing — a little-understood word known as a dummy operator. It’s the word “do,” and it’s how we form questions like “Do you want cheese?” and “Did he see a great movie last weekend?”

“Do” has two main jobs. First, it’s a regular old verb. “Do the dishes.” “I don’t do windows.” “I do.” In that job, it works the same as any other garden variety verb. But on top of that, it has a special job — that of dummy operator. Here's a column on what dummy operators are and how you use them every day without thinking about it.

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