Make and do. To make and to do. Two very simple verbs that you probably never think about (if you’re a native speaker). You probably literally use them every day. Nothing interesting about them really. Just common words that do their job without any fuss, without drawing attention to themselves. Nothing interesting about them at all, is there? Well, you might be amazed to find that actually, I find both words quite interesting indeed.
They’re actually great examples of how the things that we take for granted about our native tongue can be surprisingly (to us) difficult for people learning English. Mixing up make and do (particularly using make instead of do), is one of the most common mistakes I’ve encountered in English classrooms, and one of the hardest to shake. Why would people make such an error? It’s actually pretty obvious when you know a little about some other languages. A lot of languages, even if they’re similar to English, don’t make the distinction between make and do that English does. The French verb faire, for example, suffices in French expressions, some of which translate to phrases with do in English, and some of which use make. For example: faire une omelette (make an omelette), faire des devoirs (do homework), faire une erreur (make a mistake), faire rien (do nothing). It’s very hard to readjust to using two verbs when in your own language you only use one.
And I think people are more likely to gravitate towards using make rather than do because it feels more concrete. We can conceive of making something. It’s easy to imagine something being constructed, literally being made, like a house or a delicious cake. A lot of phrases with make, even if they’re not about literally making something, feel more concrete than phrases with do, like make a mistake versus do research. I think that sense of solidity makes people more likely to use make, because they can more easily imagine it.
Do on the other hand… Well, here’s an exercise: define the verb to do. Think about how you’d explain it to someone who’d never come across it before. And do so without using any form of the word to do. It’s not so easy, is it? Because to do just refers to… doing! It doesn’t refer to anything specific, just the action of performing an action. It’s just doing! We often use it in questions, when we’re not referring to a specific action (because we don’t know what the action is, hence the question). It’s a curious word, because it’s so common, but its very commonness makes it quite empty. We can’t do without it (I couldn’t have written that phrase without it), but when we think about how we use it and what it means, it’s hard to pin it down. It means everything (it could refer to any possible action in the universe) and at the same time it means nothing (we rarely use it to refer to a known action).
Compounding this effect is the fact that we use do, alongside be and have, as one of the three auxiliary verbs in English. This means that it can be used in a sentence purely in a structural sense, without really providing any meaning of its own. Consider, for example, how we use it in questions and negative sentences: Where did you go? I didn’t know you were going anywhere. Did and didn’t don’t really mean anything there. They just help us to recognise that we’re dealing with a question or negative sentence, and the sentences still need a main verb (go, know) to work. This common use of do only adds to the sense that it doesn’t really mean anything, and makes it easier to forget (many students forget to use it in questions, as auxiliary verbs aren’t often used to form questions in other languages). How about this question: What did you do last night? Makes perfect sense, but for someone in the early stages of learning English, it might be tricky. We often tell students to look for the verb in a sentence to find the meaning. But there’s nothing to grab hold of in this question. There are two forms of do, but no concrete action to identify.
As I said, I find this really interesting (725 words later, I must!), because when I began teaching, errors like this were not the ones I expected students to make. I thought mistakes would be really obvious, and be easily fixable: you don’t use that word, you use this word, and here’s why! And now, you’ll never make that mistake again! But reality soon sets in. Students repeat seemingly simple mistakes, even after correction. And the reasons for these mistakes are hard to get to the bottom of. If you’re a new teacher, it can be very frustrating to hear students make these errors, and hard to understand why they make these mistakes. If a student asks you why you don’t say make your homework, and you’re not the kind of person who blogs about minute differences between verbs, what do you say?
How do you help students figure this out (or, if you’re an English learner, how do you figure it out yourself?). Well, sometimes saying That’s just the way it is is ok. We use make with these phrases, and do with these, and that’s that. And that’s often how it is in English. There isn’t always a rule that explains everything. But even then, you can help students in some simple ways. You can choose some examples of phrases with make and do, get students to choose the correct verb, and then get them to make conversation in which they have to use some of these phrases. It’ll take time and practice, but through repetition, making mistakes and learning from them, and hearing the phrases being used, students gradually absorb them.
An experienced teacher though, will reflect on why we might use these two verbs the ways we do. And they might spot a vague pattern, such as the fact that phrases with make often involve creating something which didn’t exist before. When you make a mistake or make a decision, you’re creating something new. But when you do something, there’s not usually such a sense of creation. If you do your homework, you might not be creating something new (unless you have to write an essay). If you’re filling in gaps in a text, for example, you’re changing the text, but not really making something new. This isn’t true of every use of make or do, but I think it’s enough for students to go on. And they’re more likely to remember it if they see that you’ve figured this out yourself rather than read it in a book.
And that’s why reflection is so important in teaching and learning. If you’re a teacher and you figure something out for yourself, your students will respond well to that. And if you’re a student and figure something out for yourself, you’ll remember it better and boost your confidence. Just don’t take reflection on language too far and end up writing a blog or something ridiculous like that. If you reflect on your teaching and learning to a reasonable extent, you’ll make do.