Do or Do Not

“Do or do not. There is no try.”    — Yoda

I picked this quotation because it illustrates one of my favorite grammatical concepts: dummies.

I’m not talking about people who don’t know whether it should be “John and me” or “John and I,” or people who abuse the subjunctive by saying “If I was…” I’m talking about linguistic clutter, words without content which nevertheless have a grammatical function.

For example: “There” is an adverb meaning “in, to, or at that place or position.” Not complicated.

Hypothetical Girl Telling Pointless Story: So, there’s this guy who keeps texting me. So, yesterday he says–

Me (looking around): Where?

HGTPS: Huh? Where what?

Me: Where is he — the guy who’s bothering you?

HGTPS: How should I know? That’s not important. So, he’s texting me–

Me: You said he was there. You said, “There’s this guy…”

HGTPS: I didn’t mean he’s there. I just mean there’s this guy who keeps texting me.

Me (enlightened): Ah, you mean the dummy subject.

HGTPS (nodding): Yeah, he’s an idiot. So, he texts me…

In the  preceding dialog, as in Yoda’s quotation, ‘there’ is not an adverb, nor any sort of ‘content’ word. It is a grammatical dummy, taking the place of the true subject, “this guy” in an inverted word-order sentence. The sentence really means: “A guy exists, who keeps texting me.” But nobody talks that way.

A question I get asked often in my Latin classes is, “What’s the word for ‘do’?” They want to say something like, “What do you want?” The answer, of course, is complicated, and more than they want to know. It’s an auxiliary verb, one of those things you tried to forget about as soon as you finished eighth grade.

It’s also a grammatical dummy.

What Yoda’s sentence means is, “Do [something], or don’t [do it].”

We could re-word it to illustrate the point better: “Levitate the ship, or don’t levitate it.”

In the first instance, “do” takes the place of the action verb “levitate.” We use it this way in answering questions, saying, “I do,” instead of “I promise” or “I understand.” As such, it is a placeholder for a content word, a previously-referenced action.

In the second example, “do” is used with the negative word “not.” English requires “do” in two instances: 1) in a negative sentence; and 2) in a question. It can also be used to make a sentence emphatic.

Me: Do you like eggplant?

You: No, I don’t! But I do like tofu.

Students learning other languages run into this oddity because most other languages lack a ‘dummy do.’

“Dummy Do” wasn’t always the preferred way of handling these tasks. Shakespeare might have said, “I know not” rather than “I don’t know.” or “Know you the way?” instead of “Do you know the way?”

How and why English started using “do” this way is just an oddity in the language’s evolution. It makes possible some peculiar conversations, such as:

Betty: Did you do the homework?

Veronica: I don’t do homework. Do you?

Betty: I do.

Veronica: No, you don’t.

Betty: Yes, I do! I do do my homework – every night!

Veronica: Why do you do the homework I don’t do?

Betty: Shut up and do your homework!

We rarely think about how strange English is when we grow up speaking it. That’s why we expect to find equivalent structures in other languages. Unless we grow up bilingual, we may believe that other languages are just word lists.

That’s why my Latin students want a word for ‘there’ and ‘do’ in Yoda’s quotation. To translate his words into Latin, we would have to decide what they really mean. We could say, “Either act, or don’t act. It’s not enough to try.” A Roman would more likely say something like: “Either engage in a task, or refrain. To try is not enough.” Perhaps:

Aut opus aggredi aut abstine; temptare satis non est.

This sounds clumsy to me. Any other Latinists out there with a better translation?


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