"What does he say ?"

My question seems not relevent to grammar, I am not sure, but I am in wonder.

In the question "What does he say ?" the word "does" seems redundant to me, as the question is fine without it. I cannot find a suitable translation for it when I translate the above question to my language.

I do not understand what is going in minds of native speakers when they say it. I wonder how they utter words have not specific meaning in their questions. ... maybe it has a meaning for them but what it is?

  • How do you ask a question by using the interrogative present simple?
    – Schwale
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 23:57
  • 2
    This question is probably better asked at Linguistics.SE. IMHO, all natural languages are "over-encoded". Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 7:43

4 Answers 4


You should study the grammar point "questions and negations" http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/clause-phrase-and-sentence/verb-patterns/verbs-questions-and-negatives

In a nutshell:

1 "Normal verbs" need a form of to do (do, does did - don't, doesn't, didn't) in questions and negations.

2 All verbs are "normal verbs", except some "particular verbs". Particular verbs are

2.1 The verb to be

2.2 Auxiliary verbs used for the formation of tenses (will for future, would for conditional tense/mood, have/has/had for the perfect tenses).

2.3 Modal verbs: can/could, may/might, must/---, shall/should, will/would

2.4 "to have" is a special case. It is a particular verb when used for the perfect tenses, and a normal verb when meaning to possess and similar ideas.

There is one special rule: questions with who/what/which+noun, subject case, never use to do for questions or negations.

I have given the essentials of this grammar point. For details see a grammar.

As to your question why English uses to do in questions and negations, though most languages don't need such a special marker, that is a question about which I have never read anything though the question is a good one. I have a personal theory and I have presented it here somewhere on stackechange. When I find it I'll add the link.

Added: What have native speakers in their mind when they use "to do"?

@GamalThomas - Good question, but not so easy to answer if you don't have such a verb. Have a look at various online dictionaries such as Oald, The Free Dictionary, Collins, MacMillan, and look up the word in dictionaries of your own tongue. It would be good to know your mother tongue. If you do the cooking or shopping you perform the necessary actions for this job. It is a general verb; I call such words chewing gum words, you can use them for a lot of things. To do can be placed before a verb for an emphasizing effect, eg I do hate this teacher. And as we have seen it is a marker for questions and negations. Don't know whether all this helps you much.

  • Thank you for the answer, do not forget also to give me how the native speaker translate this word in his mind which I have no translation. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:35
  • Thank you for your answer but I really looked at some dictionaries .. they give different meanings of the verb and comment on its role in making questions or negatives yet I did not find anyone describe the verb meaning when comes in questions. My mother tongue is Arabic, when we speak we do not say a word without a meaning so "Does" seems strange for me. I wanted to go further to understand how minds of native speakers translate this word for them! Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 21:00
  • 2
    "Do" here is an auxiliary verb that is part of the grammar. I think you can find "words without meaning" in Arabic too (or at least where the meaning is part of the syntax and hard to explain), like سوف if I understand it correctly). Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 23:32
  • 1
    @laugh - It seems yes that the word سوف has no meaning in Arabic , it is just being usied as a marker to indicate future (like will in English) .. Although many Arabic dictionaries give it some meanings ! ... The best part here is that almost no Arabic native speaker (as me) is aware of the meaningless of the word. It seems some languges use this kind of words . Thank you for your answer it was helpful. Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 17:01

The usage of "do" for questions (and negatives) is a relatively recent addition to the language. I suspect that its usage has something to do with its function as an affirmative, like "I do" in response to the marriage vows.

In medieval English, questions were asked by word inversion, as they still are with "be" and "have". The transition was in progress in Shakespeare's time. Here are two verses from 1 Corinthians 6 (King James Bible, published 1611). Note that verse 2 uses "Do", and the very next verse uses word inversion.

2 Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? ...

3 Know ye not that we shall judge angels? ...


The way to ask most wh- questions in English is to start with the wh-word (what, where, when, who, and also how) and follow with an inverted-order sentence, where the auxiliary verb ("do" or "be") comes before the subject.

The same inverted order is also used in yes-no questions, so this is a common structure for questions:

  • is he going?
  • where is he going?
  • does he go?
  • where does he go?
  • is he your friend?
  • who is he?

Note that there are also questions without this inversion like "who is going?" - there's more complexity in English than a set of simple rules can cover. But I hope the answer helps you understand what is going in people's minds.

If you remove "does" you are left with "what he say" and correcting to "What he says" may look ok, but in English this is not a question - it is equivalent to "the thing that he says". Since the order is not inverted, this does not sound like a question. English speakers may understand it as a question from context or voice pitch, but it is less natural, and might mark the speaker as foreign.

  • See also this for a discussion of "do". Also, if you find an response helpful you may want to mark it as an answer... Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 23:35

What does he say
What does he write
What does he think

Are all asking about what someone is doing, it has the same meaning as

What is he saying
What is he writing
What is he thinking

What does he say should not be confused with

What he says
What he said

which refers to whatever someone has said

  (P1 looking at P2 and P3 suspiciously)
P1: (P1 looks at P2) What are you two up to?
P2: Oh nothing, we're just out here minding our own business, not really interested in anything
P1: (looking at P3) And you?
P3: What he said (looking at P2)

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