"Mr. Hemmingway, do you write books?" "I do."

"Did Mr. Hemmingway write this book?" "He did."

Just as the pronoun "he" or "I" stands in place of the noun "Mr. Hemmingway", so the verb "do" or "did" stands in place of the very "write" or "wrote". This is complicated by the way in which English uses "do" or "did" as an auxiliary verb in questions: maybe it could be argued that "do" or "did" in the answer is merely the same verb, "do" or "did", that is the main verb in the question. That "do", "does", or "did" would stand in place of another verb when it is expected to be understood what the other verb is, is very far from the only way in which the verb "do" is used in English. However, this inspires a question: might there be, in some languages, some verbs whose only function is to bear the same relation to verbs in general that pronouns bear to nouns?

  • (1) "Have you been to Paris?" "I have." (2) "Have you any money?" "I have." (3) "Do you have any money?" "I do." The form (3) is far more prevalent than (2) in present-day American English. In both (2) and (3), just as in (1), the main verb verb in the answer is the same as the (syntactically) main verb in the question, so we're not really using a frequently used short verb to stand in place of the meaningful verb in the way "he" or "I" stands in place of "Mr. Hemmingway", but nonetheless the question was raised in my mind by such examples. Aug 8, 2015 at 20:08
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    You don't need to comment your own questions, unless someone raises a discussion on an uncertain issue. Instead, please edit your question and place the examples within. Aug 8, 2015 at 21:21
  • I think the answer to this question is simple: any word, not necessarily a verb, which expresses modality, actually bears the function of noun-to-verb relation. It may or may not be used alone, depending on a particular language's rule of grammatic contraction. Aug 8, 2015 at 21:33
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    The technical term is Pro-verb, usually hyphenated for obvious reasons. And there are a number of them in English, subdivided into categories depending on syntactic behavior: Act do, as in What he did was read the angle wrong; do-support do, as in He didn't have any choice, did he?; be with predicate adjectives, as in He isn't certified yet, but she has been for a year, and so on. There's a lot of use for them.
    – jlawler
    Aug 8, 2015 at 21:36

1 Answer 1


Nothing is to verbs as pronouns are to noun phrases. The definite pronouns he/she/it share reference with their nominal antecedents. Pro-verbs, however, are quite different -- they share meaning with their antecedents.

  • To say so one must assume that verbs refer, which is not a general assumption, as far as I understand. It's not defining of a pronoun to be anaphoric and share antecedent's reference, either. Aug 9, 2015 at 11:10
  • It's the difference between first- and second-order quantified predicate calculus. Logicians don't like second-order calculus much (because it's been proven to be logically inconsistent, which means you can't rely on it algorithmically), and devised lambda calculus to nominalize predicates back to NPs, but it seems clear that that's an esthetic mathematical constraint and not a natural one. People expect every word to refer, whether it's an NP or not; or alternatively, most people's concept of reference is sloppy, and their usage shows it.
    – jlawler
    Aug 9, 2015 at 13:10
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    @jlawler, second-order predicate calculus has not been shown to be inconsistent. Quine argues that higher-order logic is equivalent to set theory, which is not known to be consistent. Not being known to be consistent is not the same as being inconsistent. First order logic is known to be consistent. I do not agree that second-order logic is required to characterize pro-verb constructions.
    – Greg Lee
    Aug 9, 2015 at 14:24
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    @MichaelHardy, If I could tell you what meaning is, I would be rich and famous. But a reasonable approximation for that, in this context, is logical form. So, as an approximation, let's say that same meaning implies same logical form. E.g., "John likes shrimp, and Mary does, too" has the same meaning, and the same logical form, as "John likes shrimp, and Mary likes shrimp, too." The identity required for the pro-verb construction is the identity between the lf of "likes shrimp" in the first clause and "likes shrimp" in the second clause, whatever exactly that is, in lf. (cont.)
    – Greg Lee
    Aug 9, 2015 at 14:52
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    @dainichi, In your example, there is no problem finding the antecedent for the 0 after "he didn't" -- it is simply "like it". But try constructing an example of a pro-verb that is within its own antecedent. Take as a model "[[i] the MIG that shot at the pilot who chased it[i]]", where the antecedent of "it" is the entire noun phrase which contains the "it" (as I've tried to indicate with brackets). Which MIG was chased by that pilot? It was the MIG that shot at the pilot who chased that very MIG.
    – Greg Lee
    Aug 11, 2015 at 1:58

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