To Do vs. To Make

By Maeve Maddox

Pointing out that some languages, like Russian, have only one verb to express the meanings of English make and do, a reader requests a little guidance:

Please could you explain the difference between the verbs “to do” and “to make.” Is there some kind of formula or method?

Would that I could postulate some foolproof rule for knowing when to use do and when to use make. Some general guidelines do exist, but for many of the idioms, memorization is the ESL speaker’s only recourse.

Generally speaking, the verb do and its forms are used to talk about duties, jobs, or leisure activities:

England expects that every man will do his duty.
Who does your hair?
He’s doing time for assault.
She can’t do enough for that lay-about husband of hers.
Jake does the crossword every morning on the train.
Have you done your homework?

The verb make is used to talk about constructing, creating, or performing something:

The company has made an offer on a new building.
Excuse me while I make a phone call.
The child made a face behind the teacher’s back.
The builders are making progress on the house.
Time is running out; we must make a decision now.
We tried to move without making a noise.

It’s possible to use do with an adverb:

I hope he will do well there.
He did badly in his last job.

Make is usually followed by a noun:

make the bed
make amends
make a mistake
make a visit
make a speech

Exceptions are the idioms “to make nice” (behave in an agreeable manner), and “to make do” (get along with what one has”):

His mother told him to make nice with the neighbor’s children.
As we haven’t the money for a new car, we shall have to make do with this one.

A great many expressions that are used with make can be rephrased with verbs that correspond to the noun that follows make or with another verb:

to make a confession > to confess
to make a visit > to visit
to make a suggestion > to suggest
to make a face > to grimace
to make believe > to imagine

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2 Responses to “To Do vs. To Make”

  • Michael Tevlin

    Of interest, in Spanish, the verb hacer means both to do and to make. It is even used to talk about the weather and climate conditions: “Hace frio,” for example, means “It’s cold.”

  • Kelly

    My daughter was working with an ESL student who wanted to write, “I am not having pets,” when she meant, “I do not have pets.” Daughter was having trouble explaining to her why and how we use “do” in that way. Apparently most other languages don’t use “do” like we . . . um . . . do. (I don’t hardly know how to make a sentence without it. 😉 ) Or, maybe it would have been simpler just to teach her to use “don’t” when making a contradictory statement.

    Anyway, I wonder if you could address that some time. Thanks!

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