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I learned the simplified rule that make is used when I create something and do when I, well, do tasks. There's another question here about make versus do and its answer seconds that.

On the other hand, in any dictionary you also find a definition that basically states that do can be used in the sense of make:

to produce or make something

So, I'm looking for some more thorough explanation on when to choose make and when do. The simplified view at the matter will make me make the right choice most often but not always.

Just a few examples:

You make a speech and you make jokes but you do small talk.
You make the bed and you make the table but you do the flowers, do the dishes and do your homework.

How can I decide which word to use. Let's say I'd like to figure out if I make or do a copy of something.
Make a copy has certainly more hits, but in my book this is like doing homework. When I do my homework, I just write some words on a paper. When I copy my homework, I make sure the same is written on another paper. In both cases I do something but also in both cases I create something (not physically).

So, what are the clues that help me find the right word (in general, not only restricted to the previous example)?

  • I don't agree with your data. I think you make small talk (just like a speech, or jokes). I don't know what "do the flowers" means. "Do the dishes" is correct, but it refers to cleaning them, not to creating them, so it is consistent with your earlier rule. – hunter Jan 5 '14 at 20:19
  • @hunter "Make small talk" was what I had said before I wrote this question, but my research while writing made me change my opinion on that. And according to my dictionary "do the dishes" means "to arrange". – Em1 Jan 5 '14 at 20:24
  • @hunter is right: you "make" small talk, and do the dishes, at least in the US, means to wash them. Also (and again, in US use), you don't "make" the table unless you're a carpenter: if you're arranging the plates and silverware you "set" the table. – StoneyB Jan 5 '14 at 20:39
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    But I'm pretty antisocial. I don't do small talk. – toandfro Jan 5 '14 at 21:21
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    @em1: It's all context-dependant. The general form do the X just means attend to X / perform whatever actions are necessary in respect of X. In some contexts, it's necessary that X should be created, in which case most likely do and make can be used interchangeably. – FumbleFingers Jan 6 '14 at 13:48
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I'm afraid the only general distinction is the one you have already named: do = perform and make = create.

But that is no more than a general tendency; as your examples show, in any specific instance either or both may be relevant, and at some point in the history of the language one has earned more favour than the other.

It's often possible to see a reason why one is used rather than the other in a particular situation, and that's useful for remembering which one is used; but it is of no value in predicting which one is used when you encounter a new situation. For instance:

You complete your homework assignments, which included writing down the answers to a series of questions. It seems that should be 'making' your homework, but in fact the proper phrase is doing your homework. You might remember this by considering that sometimes your homework doesn't call for you to 'make' anything: it might be reading a chapter in your textbook. The important thing is you did the tasks that were assigned.

You agree to act as the fourth person in a game of contract bridge. You would think this would call for 'do', since you are performing a role; but in fact you make a fourth. You can remember this by noting that what you are doing is “making” a complete table of players—would that have occurred to you before you encountered the phrase?

There's just no telling. You have to learn the right term case by case.

  • I wouldn't want to get bogged down in an endless list of "ambivalent" usages - but for me at least, make the dinner and do the dinner, for example, are pretty much interchangeable variants of prepare the dinner. I also think it might be slightly more useful to think in terms of the do/make choice being more dependent on whether the primary focus is on action/result. And the "predictive value" may be less than 100% reliable, but it's certainly significantly higher than a "by chance" 50%, so things aren't quite as bad as your final paragraph suggests. – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '14 at 23:50
  • @FumbleFingers Oh, sure; it's probably around 2:1 - but if you're writing something important do you roll the dice for a 67% chance, or do you take the time to look it up and have 100% chance of getting it right? – StoneyB Jan 6 '14 at 0:46
  • If I write anything "important" these days, it's always on the computer - so a quick check is usually easy. But I imagine I'm much the same as everyone else - nearly all my language production is spoken (and relatively trivial, at that). To a considerable extent I think learning the "correct" use of prepositions, etc., is like learning a route used to be before satnavs. If it was vital I didn't take a wrong turn on any single occasion, I'd check it all out on the map first. Otherwise, I'd just "follow my nose", and only bother to learn those junctions where that approach didn't work. – FumbleFingers Jan 6 '14 at 13:36
  • @FumbleFingers Right. But your nose is informed by several decades of immersion in the language. I'd be surprised if you had to travel an unfamiliar route of this sort once a year; and if you did, you'd know another way to get there. That's not the case with our learners. – StoneyB Jan 6 '14 at 14:31
  • @StoneyB In your answer you agreed that "to make" equals "to create". However, it just came to my attention that — from an English perspective — this isn't really true. There are just a very few examples where this is the case, like "to make products". Usually, "to make" is rather in the sense of "to achieve", e.g. "to make the team", "to make money", or "to make sure". Or in the phrase "to make sense" it's more about "It's meaningful" rather than "to create meaning". That being said, understanding this matter doesn't explain why you "make the table" but "do the flowers". I'm wondering.... – Em1 Sep 1 '16 at 13:12

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