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Concourse 2

Empty verbs


What is an empty verb?

Some verbs in English do not mean anything very much.  They take their meaning from the word which follows the verb, usually a noun or a noun phrase.
For example, in:
    I made a bookcase for my study
it is clear that the verb make carries the meaning of produce or manufacture and so it has a real meaning.
However, in:
    I made a mistake
there is no sense of manufacturing something at all and in many languages, the verb will be do, not make.
And, for example, we can say:
    I gave my promise
and we can see that the verb give has the idea of presenting something but in:
    I made a promise
there is no such sense and the verb only has a meaning because of the noun which is the object and the same applies, for example, to:
    We made friends on holiday.


So, what's the problem?

The problem is that if the verb carries no or very little meaning, how do we decide which one to use?
For example, do we say:
    I did a discovery
    I made a discovery?
There is no way to tell which verb is correct (it's the second one) because the meaning comes from the noun, not the verb.



To remember the correct way to say something in English you must learn the whole expression, not the verb and the noun separately.  So do not try to remember, for example, that the verb do goes with the noun damage but the verb make goes with the noun repairs, we have to remember
    do damage
    make repairs
as single expressions.
That way we can say, for example:
    Did the storm do a lot of damage?
    Yes, but we have made all the repairs and the boat is fine now


Some common empty verbs

Here are some common empty verbs with the noun phrases they take the meaning from.

This verb often means something like interrupt.
We can say:
    She broke her promise to marry him
    I broke my journey in London
    It broke my heart to see him so unhappy
This verb often means get.
We can say:
    I caught a cold at school
    The house caught fire
    I caught sight of her outside the house
    I didn't catch that – can you say it again?
This verb often goes with nouns which are about work or jobs but not always.
We can say:
    She did her best
    We did very little business in the shop
    I did not do the damage
    She did her job very well
    We did history at my school
    I did the food for the party
    It did me no harm
    We did our homework on the train
    I did him a favour
    You did wrong to say that to her
    Can you do the shopping?
    I'll do the washing up, if you like
This verb often means get something good.
We can say:
    She earns my thanks
    He earns a good living
    They earned respect for their honesty
This verb often has the sense of something passed from one person to another.
We can say:
    She gave no answer
    You gave me your promise
    She gave notice and left her job the following month
    I'll give it some thought
    It gave rise to a lot of problems
This verb often has the sense of changing state. It is often followed by an adjective or adverb, not a noun phrase.
    The food went bad
    The machine went wrong
    The dog went mad
    The scissors went missing
    The sun went in
    The lights went off / on
    We went hungry on our walk
This verb often means arrange.
We can say:
    We must hold a new election
    They held a conversation about it
    The university is holding a conference for the doctors
    They are holding a festival for the saint's day
This verb often means retain.
We can say:
    She didn't keep her promise
    Are you keeping count of the money we are spending?
    Can you keep a secret?
    He always keeps his word
This verb keeps its usual meaning in the clause.
We can say:
    I have lost confidence in his ability
    Don't lose heart.  It will all be OK in the end
    I have lost touch with my old school friends
This verb often means something like produce or manufacture but not always.
We can say:
    I must make my apologies and leave now
    Can I make an appointment for tomorrow?
    We will make all the arrangements for the work
    I will make certain she is there
    You have to make a choice now
    I want to make a complaint
    She made a confession to her mother
    Have you made a decision?
    I have made a new discovery
    I will make enquiries for you
    They made their escape through the tunnel under the wall
    She made an excuse but nobody believed her
    I have made some good friends in my job
    Don't make fun of me.  I'm serious
    They made a fuss about the food
    Can you make a guess?
    They made a long journey into the forest
    I have made a terrible mistake
    I'll make another offer that you must accept
    They made peace at last after all the fighting
    I make some repairs to the house
    Make a little room for me at your table, please
    She made a funny speech
    I made my way to the harbour
This verb often has the meaning of give.
We can say:
    Please pay close attention
    He paid me a very nice compliment
    I will just pay my respects to your mother and then we can go
We can say:
    I must put a stop to the noise
    They will put an end to the business soon
    Can I put a question to you?
We can say:
    She ran a terrible risk
    He ran the business very badly
This verb often has the meaning of establish.
We can say:
    They set a good example of hard work
    The children set fire to the old building
    The ship set sail on the 14th October
This verb often has the meaning of acquire.
We can say:
    Please take charge of the luggage and make sure it is safe
    She took hold of the wrong idea about the boss
    John takes an interest in history
    Take no notice.  She's joking
    Please don't take offence
    They took great pains to get the figures right
    We took pity on him and bought him dinner
    Where does the festival take place?
    They moved to Spain and took root there
    We will take steps to see it doesn't happen again

If you would like that list as a PDF document, click here.

It may help you to translate the sentences into your first language to see how the use of verbs is different.


How can I remember all those?

It's not easy but you have already remembered hundreds of words in English and these are no different, just longer.
Do not try to learn the expressions as verb + noun, learn them as single meanings and it will be easier for you to remember them and, more importantly, use them correctly.

Print off the list and start with the verbs that you like, learning just a few each day.
It won't be long before you have learned them all.

When you think you have learned most of them, try these tests.

The most commonly confused verbs are make and do because many languages only have one verb for these two.
You can try a test only on make and do here.