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How To Edit Yourself Concerning 'do' And Its Over-usage In Writing

By Author: Philip Johnson
Total Articles: 38

I admit the topic for this article is a pet peeve of mine. Grammatically, it is not necessarily an error. It can actually be a useful convention in spoken English, but in written English, it's annoying--sane, competent editors should quickly delete it in nearly every instance. I'm referring to the use of the word 'do' where it is grammatically defined as an auxiliary verb.
Hopefully you don't stop reading at the first mention of grammar jargon; I'll try and keep this mostly nontechnical. Writers of any level will find this simple consideration improving the strength of their sentences tenfold! So, let's carry on. A basic definition of an auxiliary verb is any verb that combines with the main verb of a clause to define some functional or grammatical meaning, such as tense, voice, or emphasis. Occasionally, this is something the main verb cannot accomplish on its own. Consider the following example:
I didn't notice you.
Didn't is an auxiliary verb to notice in this sentence. Its function is to provide the negative, which notice cannot do on its own. "I noticedn't you," is obviously wrong, as that form of notice isn't even a word. Auxiliary verbs, in a general sense, are quite useful. This article is already littered with them. The trouble comes when writers take on the verbal convention of emphatic auxiliaries. I've used a couple of those, too, but 'do' is the weakest of the litter--puppy analogy aside, it should receive no sympathy. Emphatic auxiliaries differ slightly only when considerations are made for speech patterns. "Hey, I do know you," has the same meaning as, "Hey, I know you," but the former adds that extra one-two punch of emphasis.
This emphasis may be helpful when you run into someone on the street, but when it creeps into written language, it's open to misinterpretation (like texting without emoticons). Peruse the following examples of this atrocious habit:
At Big Corp, we do care about our customers.
I do count the ways I love you every day.
I do declare that to be the finest cheese cake I've ever consumed.
Starting with the last example, I admit I'd allow it if said with a hearty accent from the American South, but then again, that concedes its usefulness in spoken English. In writing, it would only be allowable as a quote from such a character. The first two examples show the true weakness of this writing practice.
First, it distorts the sentence much like passive phrasing (that's a whole other topic, but the concept is closely related). The main verbs are hamstrung by the insistence of 'do', as if the writer is trying to defend their point. The first example transforms something of a bland, corporate statement (demonstrating care by example is much better than words) into an even more shameful plea ("Oh, won't you please believe us?"). The second example reads as if it's coming from a romantic Neanderthal, or a child-like lover ("I do count stuff!"). For such a little word, 'do' has a powerfully degrading effect on the rest of those sentences.
The fix is simpler than correcting passive phrasing in most instances; it's just a matter of deleting 'do', given that it adds nothing to the meaning. For this reason, 'do' is often referred to as a dummy verb (and I agree, it can be pretty stupid). All three sentences read naturally without the word, respect is given back to the main verbs once it's removed, and grammatical strength and elegance improves.
So, to wrap up, this use of 'do' as an emphatic auxiliary verb is just another example of how writers need to be keenly aware of not writing as they speak. Bold, clear sentences are better obtained with a minimum of grammatical fuss.

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