Do or Make


“Do or make?” is a reasonable question for English learners. Do a decision or make one, do or make homework and housework, do an effort or make one, make or do the dishes and the bed? In general, do is for a process, and make is for a result, but it’s not an infallible rule. Why, for example, is it do the dishes but make the bed?

Many of my students are happy to guess. If not on the first try, they get it right on the second. Some students, however, are more circumspect. “I don’t understand,” one said, perplexed, looking at the list of noun phrases to use with do or make. Most similar phrases in Spanish use one verb, hacer.

“How do they sound when you say them?” I asked. “Go ahead,” I urged. And he read a few from the list, choosing either do or make to complete the phrases.

“They sound all right,” he said. I told him he was correct in every instance.

When he substituted the other verb, the wrong one, it sounded bad to him.

I smiled. The exercise felt like a success. He’d shown he has what a native speaker has—an ear for the language.

But he was unhappy. “I don’t know why.”

“Do you think I learned by rules? Do you think any native speaker does?”

But he didn’t want to be a native speaker; he wanted to speak as well as a native but be himself, advancing not by trial and error but with a plan. He’s that kind of person—a meticulous examiner of tiny details, a terrible worrier, a very good student. So he wanted a rule. I knew the feeling. I remember the frustration when my writing instructors, after outlining their favorite rules, finished up with, “And the last rule? Do whatever you want if it works.”

Yes, but what’s the rule for that, I wanted to ask. If I’d believed in myself, I wouldn’t have wondered.

To rely on intuition instead of brainpower is like wearing sweats rather than a nice outfit, and my student still needed to dress up and impress people. Anyone can make a mistake, he understood; we all do. Lots of blind steps, lots of awkward moments, many hunches that don’t pan out. “Why would you ever say that?” is a question he’d first fear, then welcome. Oh no! His decision doubted! Oh yes! A chance to justify it! He often frowns in perplexity, though sometimes a smile clears his face. For him, being wrong is almost okay as long as he is armed with an excuse in the form of a rule he has tried to apply. For him, in fact, explaining an error is better than being right.

Class was over. “You’re making progress,” I told him. “All the effort you’re making is making a difference. Keep your ears open and you’ll be fine.” I added, “But do yourself a favor and don’t worry so much!”

He hesitated. “About making mistakes?”

About making a point, I wanted to tell him. But that wasn’t what I was there to teach. So instead I just agreed.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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