Lesson #257 (Part 2): ‘Oh, I do see …’ Analysing the many ways Henry James used ‘do’ in English (and how you can too)

📗 “… The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have. You’ve plenty; that’s the great thing; you’re, as I say, damn you, so happily and hatefully young. Don’t at any rate miss things out of stupidity. Of course I don’t take you for a fool, or I shouldn’t be addressing you thus awfully. Do what you like so long as you don’t make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!”

– Henry James, The Ambassadors (1903)


While ‘do’ is sometimes a confusing verb form for students, the good news is that it has only five main forms that are used in a variety of contexts. ✍️ These are do, does, did, doing, done.

Do – Infinitive, Present tense, Future, Imperative

Does – Third person singular form in the Present tense

Did – Simple Past tense

Doing – Present Participle

Done – Past Participle

Here are some of the most important points to remember when you are putting them into practice:


If you have read this far in the Lesson (including Part 1) and not given up, you will already understand that we insert a ‘do’ in any negative sentence that doesn’t already take either ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ (both of these are also auxiliary verbs). ✍️

This is different from how other European languages express their negatives; generally speaking, they tend to just insert a ‘not’ in front of or after the verb they wish to negate.

Not so in English! 😊

Take this example:

📗 “She wants to see you; she has something to say— or considers, I believe, that you may have …”

– Henry James, The Ambassadors (emphasis mine)

In the negative, it would be written like this

✒️ She does not want to see you …

The order will always be ‘DO verb’ + ‘not’ / ‘no’ + other verb or noun. ✍️

👉 Notice how ‘wants’ in the positive sentence loses its final -s because its person’s effect has passed over to the verb ‘does’ in the negative sentence. This is because negative sentences rely more heavily on the auxiliary ‘to do’ verb and take on the form that corresponds with the person (in this case, the third person singular ‘she’ needs a verb ending with an -s, and as ‘do’ is now that verb rather than ‘want’, it takes the -s instead).

Remember, however, when we use ‘do’ with ‘not’ in a negative sentence or ‘do’ in a question, it does not mean that they are emphatic sentences. Only positive sentences use an ‘extra “do”’ to show emphasis. ✍️

On the other hand, if we want to make an emphatic negative sentence, we usually (vocally) stress the ‘not’ in the sentence: e.g., I do not agree.

💡 And while I encourage you to use the popular abbreviated form of ‘do not’ (= ‘don’t’) and ‘does not’ (= ‘doesn’t’) in your spoken English conversations, remember that if you want to sound either emphatic or formal (or are writing in English) you should choose or write out the words in full: ‘do / does not’.


✍️ While statements, whether positive or negative, follow this general word order (subject + DO (NOT) + verb or noun), when we are asking a question we reverse the order of the subject and the ‘do’ verb:

📗 “Do you think so? Do you think anyone would be too old for him?”

– Henry James, The Ambassadors (emphases mine)

And this is how it would be written for a third-person subject (‘does’ instead of ‘do’):

📗 “Does he put it all,” he smiled, “on me?”

– Henry James, The Ambassadors (emphases mine)


Now that the above conjugations are clear, all we need to mention is that ‘did’ is used to express the past of ‘do’ or ‘does’. The same word order applies as with the present forms:

📗 “I did say something this morning …”

– Henry James, The Ambassadors (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘But she didn’t really retract.’

– Henry James, The Ambassadors (emphasis mine)

📗 “Did she strike you,” he asked, “as anxious?”

– Henry James, The Ambassadors (emphasis mine)

💡 [‘Strike’ here simply means ‘make a strong impression on another person’, and not an actual physical blow!]

But what exactly is happening when ‘did’ acts as an auxiliary verb helping another verb in the sentence?

As mentioned in the section on the present tense above, the verb form ‘did’ absorbs the past tense and the other verb is then written in the infinitive. For example:

📗 ‘He went once more to the garden …’

– Henry James,The Ambassadors (emphasis mine)

(‘Went’ here comes from the verb ‘go’, which is also the infinitive of that verb.)

This is how it would be written as a negative sentence:

✒️ He did not go once more to the garden.

And this is how it would be written as a question:

✒️ Did he go once more to the garden?

So the important point here is to be aware of the infinitive form of the other verb in the sentence since it will exchange its past form for an infinitive while the ‘did’ (newly introduced in negative sentences or questions) will take on the past tense itself instead.

This Lesson has covered the most important points you need to know about the verb ‘do’, but of course you will need to keep reading, listening, and generally paying attention to how it is used in English to really grasp all these points in context. That is the key!

This powerful little verb is such a great helper verb, and we will do well if we remember all the different ways we can apply it. 🗝️

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)