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When we use "action" as an uncountable noun, the collocation is "take action" or "go into action." How about when we use it as a countable noun? Do you think it is okay to say, "do an action"? And can we use any other words than "do"? Example sentences:

Don't just wait. Do an action. (Context: Telling someone to do something instead of just waiting)

The teacher needs to do the action to display how to do it to students instead of just telling them what to do. (Context: Talking about a CPR teacher)

Note: I am asking this because I couldn't find the right collocation in a dictionary.

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    The reason we wouldn't normally speak of doing an action is simply that it's much easier and more natural to say acting. So the preferred maxim would be Don't just wait - act! Oct 21 at 11:15
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    Or, another very idiomatic and common construction would be "Don't just wait. Do something." or "The teacher needs to do something to show the students how to do it..." (note: "display" and "show" are synonyms, but "show __ how to" is idiomatic in the context of teaching and instructing). Oct 21 at 14:17
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    @AndyBonner in fact "do something" might be the answer exactly. In that phrase, "something" is a placeholder for "some action" anyways.
    – BruceWayne
    Oct 21 at 20:15
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    If you're telling someone to do ANY action, you would say "Don't just wait. Do something.". "Take action" is more idiomatic in the context of giving a motivational statement: "The only way you'll accomplish this is to take action". Otherwise, you almost answered your own question by classifying it as a countable noun, as the "action" is implied in this case and a more specific statement would be made instead such as: "Don't just wait. There's still 30 boxes to move!", this type of statement implies that the listener should be performing said action. Oct 22 at 1:29
  • The writer in this BBC article uses the phrase "do the action," multiple times. Do you think he made a mistake as a native English speaker himself? teachingenglish.org.uk/article/total-physical-response-tpr Oct 25 at 15:03
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I would go for perform an action, and Google Ngram seems to confirm that it's more often used than do an action or any other alternatives I could think of, both for the indefinite (an action) and the definite (the action) variation.

But in your first example, "Do something!" is more idiomatic, or perhaps even "Act!" (it is a verb too).

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  • Thanks. Don't you think it would be all right to use "do" in an informal context? Oct 21 at 11:12
  • I've never heard it before, but I'm not a native speaker. You will certainly be understood.
    – Glorfindel
    Oct 21 at 11:15
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    IMHO "take" is a better verb here, when considering all possible determiners.
    – Kevin
    Oct 21 at 18:56
  • @Kevin The writer in this BBC article uses the phrase "do the action," multiple times. Do you think he made a mistake as a native English speaker himself? teachingenglish.org.uk/article/total-physical-response-tpr Oct 25 at 15:03
  • @FireandIce: I never said that "do" is wrong, just that I think "take" is more natural in most contexts, on average.
    – Kevin
    Oct 25 at 17:19
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Normally we do not say we are doing an action. Each of those words, do and act, implies the other. If you do something you have acted. If you have acted you have done something.

In some situations, such as your second sentence which is a very nice example, we do want to refer to doing an action but we only need to mention it once. If the teacher was showing a video or a graphic of someone else performing the action we might say she was displaying how to do it. If the teacher is physically performing the action, we would say she is demonstrating how to do it.

The teacher needs to display/demonstrate how to do the action instead of just telling the students what to do.

Even in the case above the words the action are very vague and generalized. It is a bit odd for me to think of referring to a specific thing using the word the and follow it up with a word as generalized as action. I think in actual conversation I might be apt to select a different word, one that more specifically describes the action.

The teacher needs to demonstrate how to clear the airway instead of just telling the students what to do.

In your question you specifically mention countable actions. Whereas I would be more likely to refer to a specific, countable action by the name of the action itself, clear the airway for example, I would feel comfortable referring to each action or an action as a way to identify an entire, countable series of actions or a non-specific action within that series.

The teacher needs to demonstrate each action instead of just telling the students what to do.

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  • On the other hand, if the teacher was demonstrating a children's' song rather than CPR, then the phrasing "the teacher must do the action" would be completely appropriate; once you start singing 'Nellie the Elephant' during CPR it gets a bit blurred. Oct 22 at 12:46
  • The writer in this BBC article uses the phrase "do the action," multiple times. Do you think he made a mistake as a native English speaker himself? teachingenglish.org.uk/article/total-physical-response-tpr Oct 25 at 15:02
  • @FireandIce - It appears to be sloppily written, perhaps by a non native speaker. Phrases such as She starts by saying a word ('jump') or a phrase ('look at the board') and demonstrating an action, lead me to believe this. The article's context suggests that when the instructor starts by saying a word she then demonstrates the action (i.e. she says jump and then jumps) and does not demonstrate an action (i.e. she does not say jump and then flap her arms). Why do you think the speaker is a native speaker? Is it the sloppy English?
    – EllieK
    Oct 25 at 15:23
  • @FireandIce - I'm not saying people do not say do the action. What I am saying is that saying do the action is like saying it's the thing. A little bit goes a long way.
    – EllieK
    Oct 25 at 15:31
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"Do an action" is not common in English, and I can't think of any examples where it would be appropriate. Typical phrases that would be used might be "Take an action", "Perform an action" or "Demonstrate an action".

Your first example is difficult to apply to the countable noun; potentially you could be encouraging someone to choose an action, or to perform an already chosen action. In either case, though, someone speaking/exhorting the person would likely not use a phrase like "choose an action", but would probably say something like "Come on, do something!" or "Don't wait, just do it!".

Your second example has been covered quite well by Ellie; 'demonstrate' is the most appropriate word and allows the sentence to be shortened, e.g. "The teacher needs to demonstrate [the/each] action instead of just telling the students what to do.".

A common situation where 'action' is a countable noun is when playing a board game, and you will often hear phrases such as "Pick an action", "Use an action" and particularly "Take an action" used in that scenario. Possibly even "Do an action", but it still feels awkward/incorrect.

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  • The writer in this BBC article uses the phrase "do the action," multiple times. Do you think he made a mistake as a native English speaker himself? teachingenglish.org.uk/article/total-physical-response-tpr Oct 25 at 15:02
  • @FireandIce no, not a mistake; it does fit well there but I'm not entirely sure why 😅. It's usually not grammatically incorrect, the usage is just uncommon Oct 25 at 18:51

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