Do is one of English’s super verbs. English speakers use it many times every day in its various forms (do, does, did, done and doing). But for non-native speakers of all levels, using it as instinctively as native speakers can sometimes be a big challenge.

Here are three reasons why it often causes problems.


1. Your language doesn’t need an auxiliary verb (German: Hilfsverb) to form questions or negatives

In German, questions are formed simply by putting the verb before the object:

Normal sentence Question
Du wohnst hier. Wohnst du hier?
Er wohnt hier. Wohnt er hier?


In English, however, most verbs need the verb do to do this:

Normal sentence Question
You live here. Do you live here?
He lives here. Does he live here?


To make a verb negative, German typically adds the word nicht (not):

Normal sentence Negative
Du wohnst hier. Du wohnst hier nicht.
Er wohnt hier. Er wohnt hier nicht.


Most English verbs need both do and not to make a typical negative sentence:

Normal sentence Negative
You live here. You don’t live here.
He lives here. He doesn’t live here


Questions and negatives using special verbs like be, can and will, don’t use do:

Verb Normal sentence Question Negative
be You are OK. Are you OK? You aren’t OK.
can You can come. Can you come? You can’t come.
will You’ll call me. Will you call me? You won’t call me.


2. Your language uses the equivalent of make to talk about general actions

The German verb machen is seen as an all-purpose verb which can replace almost all action verbs. In English, do plays this role:

German English
Er macht es. He does it.
Du hast es gemacht. You have done it./
You did it.


The English verb make is generally used when something is created:

English German
She’s making a list.
Sie schreibt eine Liste.
He made a cake.
Er hat einen Kuchen gebacken.


3. Using both of the above at the same time can seem strange

Because it’s possible to make a sentence by using do as both an auxiliary verb and as the real verb, we often see the verb do used twice at the same time:

English German
What did you do? Was hast du gemacht?


For this reason, English learners often forget to use the second do:

Incorrect Correct
What did you? What did you do?


What now?

Native speakers do all of this instinctively, so it’s a good idea to train this as much as possible. This will improve your instinct too, and allow your brain to focus on other things.

Try to learn groups of words that you can repeat or adapt very often. Here are a few examples:

Normal sentence Question
Do you have [a pen/an appointment]? Hast du [einen Stift/einen Termin]?
Did you go [to the supermarket/to Italy]? Bist du [zum Supermarkt/nach Italien] gegangen/gefahren?
What time does [the meeting start/the boss arrive]? Um wie viel Uhr [fängt das Meeting an/kommt der Chef]?
What are you doing (now)? Was machst du (jetzt)?
When will you do that? Wann machst du das? (Wann wirst du das machen?)
Did you do that? Hast du das gemacht?
Don’t do it! Mach das nicht!


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