Linguistics on the fly – and a question for the other Katharine

I’ve been volunteering in a conversation class for L2 speakers, and last Thursday a question came up re: questions.

The exercise we were doing was a reverse Q&A. You’re given the answer and you have to construct with the question.


Answer: “Catherine”

Question: “What is your name?”

Midstream, I became intrigued by a puzzle.

When do we use the “do-operator” to form a question and when do we not?

Here’s a do-operator:

Answer: “Tarrytown.”

Question: “Where do you live?”

Why do we use a do-operator in ‘Where do you live’ but not in ‘What is your name’?

Only two L2 speakers had come that night, both long-time immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. Although they seemed to be using the do-operator correctly, neither could say how or why they used it when they did. I assume that means they’ve learned most of their English informally, interacting with native speakers.

The young man who volunteers with me — his Spanish seems to be fantastic (jealous) — had no idea, either.

Naturally I became obsessed on the spot, which may not have advanced our L2 speakers’ cause, I realize. Then again, a little linguistics never hurt anyone.

Running through the do-questions in my head — while simultaneously trying to keep the exercise going so as not to short-change the class — I spotted a difference, or thought I did: the presence or absence of a linking verb, or copula.  (I learned the term “copula” from Katharine, for the record.)

As I understand it (Katharine will have to weigh in) we use linking verbs when, in a simple clause, the subject and the ‘3rd term’ – the complement – refer to the same thing (or “have the same referent”).

I am awake. “I” and “awake” refer to the same thing.


NON-LINKING VERB (“Dynamic” verb?)
Luke and Lucy like to chase balls. “Luke-and-Lucy” and “balls” refer to different things.

So far, so good. All three questions follow the rule I came up with on the fly:

I am awake. Are you awake?
Luke and Lucy are sleeping. Are Luke and Lucy sleeping?
Luke and Lucy like to chase balls. Do Luke and Lucy like to chase balls?

But now I have a problem:

I am writing this post. “I” and “this post” refer to different things.

But the question form doesn’t use a do-operator:

I am writing this post. Are you writing this post?

So what is the do-rule, anyway?

I suspect this page has the answer, but it’s way too hard to read. Way too physically hard.

If you’re going to learn linguistics on the web, graphic design is a must.

Luke and Lucy

Posted in L2

4 thoughts on “Linguistics on the fly – and a question for the other Katharine

  1. I love the Question Rule! I run through a gradual derivation of it with my education students so they can see how tricky it is to teach people with language delays and people learning English as a foreign language. Most people (however automatically they form grammatical sentences) have no idea how they do it!

    The basic rule is purely formal (as opposed to semantic): when there’s an auxiliary or “be”, use that; otherwise use “do”.

    Is that unusual?
    Are you noticing anything unusual?
    Have you noticed anything usual?
    Had you noticed anything unusual at that point?
    Will you report anything unusual?
    Might you have noticed something unusual?

    “Do”, like the fronted auxiliary verbs in the above sentences, is what carries the tense:
    Did/do you see anything unusual?


  2. That would be what at least John McWhorter* refers to as the “meaningless do”, which is one of the features of English that makes it an odd language. His claim (or perhaps speculation?) is that it came into the language by contact with Celtic languages. And you’re right, it can be very hard for ESL students to learn idiomatically.

    In most Germanic languages, a pattern like, “Eat we breakfast?” would be idiomatic, where in English the idiom, of course, is “Do we eat breakfast?”

    * Linguistics Prof at Columbia and brilliant lecturer on linguistics, including in the Great Courses series


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