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Author Topic: A rather curious state of affairs in the grammar of "do"-questions  (Read 13500 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: December 11, 2010, 12:41:12 AM »

In my essay on the usage of the pronoun “none” that I posted here last week, I explained that “none” is treated as singular when it means “not one” and as plural when it means “not any.” But the senior PR executive who wondered about this particular usage had an interesting related question about the usage of the pronoun “you”: If, in fact, “you” is either singular or plural depending on the speaker’s or writer’s intention, why is it grammatically correct to say “Do you (still) have a problem with your grammar?” but grammatically wrong to say “Do you (still) has a problem with your grammar?” Indeed, from the looks of it, there seems to be a grammatical contradiction here.

This is why in a subsequent issue of The Manila Times, I wrote a follow-up essay, “It’s the helping verb that takes the tense,” to explain this rather curious state of affairs. In that essay, which I am now posting in this week’s edition of the Forum, I discussed the even  more compelling grammatical reason for using “have” instead of “has” in “do”-questions like the one that had puzzled the senior PR executive. (December 10, 2010)

It’s the helping verb that takes the tense

In my previous column (posted here in the Forum last week), I explained to a senior PR executive why I used the singular verb form “has” for the subject “none” in this sentence construction of mine: “I hope none of you still has a problem choosing between ‘bring’ and ‘take’...” He had wondered if I should have used the plural verb form “have” instead in the same way that it’s used in this example that he provided: “I don’t want to be caught saying ‘Do you (still) has?’ We should all ask ‘Do you (still) have?’”  

I explained that he was correct in using the plural verb form “have” in that sentence construction because in contrast to my sentence construction, the subject is clearly the pronoun “you.” This, I pointed out, is because “you”—by some quirk of English grammar—always requires the plural form of the verb regardless of whether it’s meant to be singular or plural. But I added in closing that there’s an even more compelling reason for using “have” in “do”-questions like the one he had supplied.  

That reason is the same I gave to a Hong Kong-based Filipina journalist-teacher who—almost at the same time as the senior PR executive—wrote me seeking an answer to this question posed by an adult Chinese student of hers: “Why do we combine the past and present tenses in sentences like ‘I did not go to school yesterday’? Why isn’t it ‘I did not went to school [instead]’? How do you define that sentence construction? Is there a special term for it, or do we just say ‘It’s that way because that’s the rule’?”  

Here now is the common reason for that usage that baffled both the senior PR executive and the adult Chinese student of the Filipina journalist-teacher: English has three primary helping verbs—“do,” “be,” and “have.” Also called auxiliary verbs, they help the main verb in a sentence form questions, negatives, and some verb tenses. The general rule is that when a helping verb is used in a sentence, it’s the helping verb that takes the tense, while the main verb takes its base form (the infinitive of the verb without the “to,” as in “make” from the infinitive “to make”).  

“Do” in particular is used to (a) indicate questions, (b) indicate the negative of a statement, and (c) emphasize a statement. Here are the particulars of its usage:

(a) “Do” to indicate a question:Did he take the bus?” “Does he take the bus?” In both the past and present tense, it’s the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb “take” doesn’t take the tense and remains in its base form.  

Note that when “do” is used as a helping verb to form a question, the main verb always takes its base form—which just happens to look like the plural form when, in fact, it’s really not—regardless of whether the subject (or doer of the action) is singular or plural. In all cases, it’s the helping verb “do” that takes the tense, as in these questions that have plural subjects: “Did they take the bus?” “Do they take the bus?” “Did we take the bus?” “Do we take the bus?”  

(b) “Do” to indicate the negative of a statement:I did not take the bus.” “I don’t take the bus.” In both these sentences, it’s the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb “take” doesn’t take the tense and remains in its base form.  

(c) “Do” to emphasize a statement:I did take the bus.” “I do take the bus.” Here, “do” works to strongly emphasize a response to a particular question like, say, “Did (or “Do”) you really take the bus?” Again, in such cases, it’s the helping verb “do” that takes the tense. The main verb “take” doesn’t take the tense and remains in its base form. (June 20, 2009)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 20, 2009 © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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