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I came across the following sentence in the book "essential grammar in use" (Cambridge)

"Jack did French at school but he didn't do German"

As I understand the meaning of the word "do" can be as 'to learn'. Is that correct?

I didn't see such meaning in the Cambridge dictionary.

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Actually, the link you provide does list the learning meaning:

transitive [UK] to study a subject:

Diane did anthropology at university.

So do Macmillan, OALD, and Collins.

While marked [UK], this usage would also be found in the U.S., although I would be more likely to specify that he took, studied, majored in, or some such rather than did, and even more likely would phrase it as

Jack did French at school, but not German.


Do is an extremely versatile verb, and can literally take the place of almost any other verb within a given context. I did French could mean a million things, however, so that context is essential: I put French dressing on my sald. I went to the French pavilion at the World's Fair. I installed a French drain in my backyard. I read a book about architecture by someone named French—or, I had sexual intercourse with him/her.

  • I think that the discussion of do as a pro-verb, while accurate, is irrelevant and unhelpful in answering this question. The question was specifically about the lexical (not formal) use of do to mean study. – Colin Fine Aug 2 '18 at 23:34
  • @ColinFine Revised, also to reflect the updates to the question. – choster Aug 3 '18 at 0:06
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The word "do" can have the meaning of "learn" or "study".

From Oxford dictionary:

Do: 1.8 Learn or study; take as one's subject.

‘I'm doing English, German, and History’

Based on Longman dictionary this usege is typical for British English:

Do: study [transitive] British English: to study a particular subject in a school or university

I did French for five years.

Based on Collins dictionary it's in spoken English:

Do: If you do a subject, author, or book, you study them at school or college. [spoken]

I'd like to do maths at university. [VERB noun] 'So you did 'Macbeth'

in the first year?'—'No, in the first year we did 'Julius Caesar'.'

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"Do" actually has at least a few dozen dictionary meanings, but you shouldn't feel that these are the only ones possible. "Do" is one of those English verbs (like "get") that can be used to make up new phrases, the meaning of which you are expected to understand from the context. For example,

Roger doesn't do lunch.

Even if you've never heard this expression before, or you can't find anything related in the dictionary, you can still understand from context that the speaker means that Roger ordinarily does not eat lunch.

Another possible variation is:

Roger doesn't do lunch breaks.

This means that Roger either doesn't personally take a lunch break, or he doesn't believe the people he manages should take lunch breaks. Again, in context, the meaning should be apparent.

For example, suppose you are talking to a professional chef, and you suggest you two get something to eat at McDonald's. The chef replies haughtily:

I don't do fast food.

meaning she strongly dislikes eating a fast-food restaurants, and, presumably, prefers restaurants that take their time.

On the other hand, suppose she's cooking for you, and you suggest that you don't have a lot of time. She might respond:

I'm sorry, I don't do fast food

meaning that when she prepares food, she prefers to take her time, not rush.

Again, the point is that "do" has an extraordinary range of possible meanings, and you shouldn't limit it to only those you find in a dictionary. Moreover you have to pay attention to context, since the expected meaning might be changed to something else, for humorous effect.

For example, since "do" can also mean "have sex with", I can make your example a little more risque:

A: Jack did French at school but he didn't do German.
B: So he can speak French?
A: No, not a word. I mean he had sex with a French schoolmate but he never managed to get with that German he fancied.

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