The Verb “Do”

13 June 2007

We use this verb quite often. Why? (In the interest of full disclosure, I initially wrote “Why do we us the verb “to do” so often,” exhibiting the very behavior I am examining).

Sometimes, only the verb “to do” or one of its forms makes sense: “How’re you doing?” “What did you do last weekend?” “Are you done?” These uses and senses of the verb are intransitive; we aren’t “doing” anything, except in the last instance. In all of these cases, it’s not what is done that is the focus or interest of the sentence; it is the doing or not doing, the being done or not being done that we’re interested in.

But since college, I’ve noticed people using the verb “do” specifically in relation to work or some vocational activity: e.g., “I need to do some work,” either meaning catch up on work for a job or other paying gig, or perhaps spend time on my own creative tasks, such as writing. I’ve also, although less frequently, noticed it in regard to some chores: “I need to do some cleaning.” “I need to do laundry,” doesn’t fall into this category, as “I need to launder some clothes” sounds like something out of Remains of the Day.

The point I’m making is that all these sentences already contain verbs that are up to the task of conveying meaning: “I need to work” is more succinct and “I need to work on <fill in the blank>” is more precise. “I need to do some work” or “I need to do work” both sound needlessly wordy and ambiguous, even lazy. Granted, the net savings is at most two words if that, but “doing work” just seems needlessly repetitive to me.

I was reminded of this by Larry‘s use of the phrase “doing theology” to describe what he’s been doing lately in his preaching. This use of the verb “do” is typical of scholarly and academic usage lately, often in the form of rhetorical questions that are self-critical or -examining of a discipline or practice (“What does it mean to ‘do church’?” or ‘do classics’ or ‘do historicism’ or ‘do Romanticism’ all being uses of the verb I remember hearing or reading).

I wonder why this usage has gained currency. Does it make clear the speaker’s (self-?)consciousness of the “meta-” nature of the question? Using “do” might help show that this is a conscious analysis of the action, a proposal of an evaluative exercise, and not a sincere inquiry into how this activity is done in a purely expository sense.

The use of “do” in this way strikes me either as lazy and unnecessarily wordy in the first sense and slightly pretentious in the latter. I’ll admit we have a pot-and-kettle situation here, since I’m not the most verbally parsimonious person. Additionally, I don’t think that “theologizing” sounds less pretentious; in fact, it sounds way more pretentious that “doing theology,” and I don’t want to bash Larry for using a perfectly legitimate usage with few, if any, good alternatives.

It’s just that these usages of “do” . . . they’ve always struck me as a little funny, although I continue to use them.

Ah, maybe it’s that I just can’t sleep.

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4 Responses to “The Verb “Do””


  1. I think you may have a point. I have tried to avoid said usage especially with “church”. As I used it in my post I think it definitely had the “meta” quality you mention. Since I was talking about something that has become more deliberate and self-aware.
    Good reflection, not sure we’ll escape it though.


  2. I’m not sure we’ll escape it, and I’m not sure we need to.

    I just think that if people were a little more conscious of the usage, they might not use it as often; when it’s “meta-,” I actually think the usage works well. But some activities aren’t meant to be “meta-” or self conscious, and in these cases the verb “do” I think is unnecessary.

  3. Tripp Says:

    Do bees. Don’t bees.
    Don’t do me like that…
    Doin’ it all for my baby (she’s so fine)…
    There is no try. There is only do or do not.

    It is an inescapable reality, Jorge. Do whatcha gotta do, but doin’ the lit crit thang ain’t doin’ it for me.

    (Sorry, none of this fits the parameters of your quandary, but I tried.)


  4. Tripp, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    I’ll roll up my lit crit and smoke it.

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