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