Notes on the history of stand-in do

Speakers of English in the late 16th and early 17th centuries had two choices.

They could use subject-verb inversion for ALL questions, even those without auxiliaries, and they could form negatives and negative imperatives without stand-in do. These are the earlier patterns in English.


What say the citizens? (Richard III)
Why looks your grace so heavily today? (Richard III)
How cam'st thou hither? (Richard III)


He sends you not to murther me for this. (Richard III)
Believe him not. (Richard III)
Awak'd you not this morning in this sore agony? (Richard III)
But they could also use the stand-in do construction we find more modern sounding:

How dost thou feel thyself now? (Richard III)
O do not slander him! (Richard III)

Each choice had stylistic significance. In the early 17th century, the versions without do had a colloquial flavor, while the versions with do had a literary tone. Gradually, during the course of the 17th century, the versions with do won out as the normal pattern, both in speech and in writing. By the early 18th century, the versions without do were felt to be increasingly archaic and literary.

In early Modern English declarative sentences could also be formed with a weakly stressed version of do that--unlike the do of present-day statements with emphatic do --was not felt to be emphatic, and the existence of this construction may have formed the basis for the spread of do in questions and negatives:

Your eyes do menace me. (Henry IV pt. 2)
And that same vengeance doth he hurl on thee. (Henry IV pt. 2)
Thou dids't receive the sacrament. (Henry IV pt. 2)

In other words, a sentence like Your eyes do menace me. was more or less an alternative version of Your eyes menace me. and did not have the present-day meaning "Yes, indeed, your eyes DO menace me!" Gradually, such sentences were reinterpreted as being emphatic in intent.

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Comments to: Sara Kimball
Last updated January, 2001