How Do You Do?

It’s a simple question, isn’t it? Not that we are expected to reply!

howdoyoudo

Image from http://simonelia.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/how-do-you-do.html

Informally we often ask ‘How are you doing?’ Another simple question – inviting a proper answer, unlike its more formal cousin.

so-how-you-doing-hippo

Image from http://weknowmemes.com/2012/05/so-how-you-doing-hippo/

But recently I was asked by a foreign language student of mine ‘What does doing mean?’ Hmmmm, well that’s….errrr……actually not so simple. Doing and also Do don’t actually mean anything. Except they are quite vital to English sentence structure. The sharp-eyed among you will notice I had to use don’t = do not in the sentence before last. I quite probably will again. But….WHAT DO THEY MEAN??? [Yup, I used it again just there. Aaaargh]

The OED has a few suggestions:-

Do:

n  The action of doing, or that which is done; action, business.

vb  I. As a main verb.

1.trans.

a. To put, place. to do onoffinout,

Doing:

The action of do v.; action, proceeding, conduct, behaviour; performance or execution of something. Frequently with possessive, attributing responsibility to a specified agent.

So, there you have it – Do is the action of doing and doing is the action of do. What more could we need to know?

The best way I could try to explain this pesky word in any meaningful way was that it doesn’t [yup, there is is again!] really mean anything, but can be used as a sort of ‘catch-all’ verb to cover a range of activities:

Do the dishes [including washing, drying, putting away]

Do the housework [Hoovering, doing the dishes, dusting, emptying bins…not a range of activities I do very often!] [Yup, another 2 uses of it just there]

Do homework [reading a book, writing an essay, conducting an experiment in nuclear physiscs……I have no idea what homework might entail nowadays!]

But, you get the general picture – and, thankfully, so did they.

However, it doesn’t [another one] stop there. We need do to make negatives and questions. It doesn’t add anything of any semantic value to the sentence, but it is quite vital in English .

I like coffee – I do not like tea

Do you like tea? No, I don’t.

In this context, do has a rather wonderful name grammatically – the Dummy Do. Lovely isn’t it? Much better than fronted adjectival phrase or similarly boring titles. A vital, very useful, much-used word in the English language that really means very little at all. One last thought – should I tell my students about one of the other ways it can be used?

Maybe next week………we’re not learning about coarse language just yet!

 

 

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