When to use the verbs ‘make’, ‘have’, and ‘do’ in English

Career March 10, 2020

If you’re learning English, and are finding the verbs ‘make’, ‘do’, and ‘have’ a bit of a struggle, don’t worry – you’re not alone. These three words often trip up English learners – not because they don’t understand the meaning behind them, but because of the fact that they’re frequently used together with different words…where only one choice of the verb is right! 

When particular words are put together with ‘make’, ‘do’, or ‘have’, they become ‘collocations’. In language terms, collocation refers to a word or phrase commonly used with another word or phrase. Put the wrong pairing together, and native speakers will likely understand, but it just won’t sound quite right. ‘Make’ and ‘do’ are two of the best examples of why collocation is so important, but ‘have’ earns its fair share of linguistic slip-ups, too. Have you ever been tempted to make a party when you should have had one instead?

While there aren’t rigid rules about when to use ‘make’, ‘do’, or ‘have’, some collocations are logical and have general guidelines. Let’s see if they can help! 

Have

‘Have’ normally indicates possession, which is why it can sometimes be confusing for learners when they need to use it in collocations. Not to fear, though – this verb might be the most simple in terms of how to remember what to pair it with. ‘Have’ is often used with fixed events, just like in the example above of having a party. 

Some common events used with ‘have’ include:

  • A break: “I haven’t had a break all morning and I’m starving!”
  • A meeting: “Let’s have a meeting to discuss the upcoming budget cuts.”
  • Breakfast, lunch, dinner (meals): “Do you want to have lunch together today?”
  • A holiday: “Lucy hasn’t had a holiday since 2010! She’s a workaholic!”
  • An interview: “I have four interviews coming up this week. I’m so nervous!”

Other common collocations with ‘have’ involve types of discussion or ways of speaking (often between two people), such as:

  • A disagreement/an argument: “John and his neighbour had a disagreement after John parked in the neighbour’s parking space.”
  • A chat: “We haven’t spoken in weeks! I’ll call you tonight so we can have a good chat.”
  • A conversation: “We had to have a long conversation about where our relationship was really going.” ‘Make conversation’ is also possible, and it means to engage in small talk, such as discussing the weather, when you don’t really know a person well.

Do

We often use ‘do’ when there is a particular task involved. Some common expressions relating to jobs relating to the home include:

  • The housework (cleaning and tidying the house)
  • Homework (work you do after school)
  • The shopping (buying groceries – not clothes! That’s ‘go shopping’)

Others which need less explanation include:

  • The laundry
  • The dishes
  • The washing/the washing up

Watch out, though! There are some exceptions around the home just waiting to trip you up – you have to make the bed and people will often use ‘make’ with a meal. You make breakfast before you eat it, or before you have it! 

Other examples with ‘do’ including the idea of work include doing:

  • The maths (or ‘math’ if you’re learning American English!)
  • The calculations
  • The groundwork
  • The accounts
  • The job

Then there are fixed expressions which don’t particularly relate to any type of action. ‘Do’ is also used with:

  • Business: “It’s a pleasure doing business with you. I’m looking forward to our two companies working together more.”
  • Good. To do good means to make a positive difference – charity workers do good in the world. The opposite, do harm, means to make a negative difference. 
  • Well. To ‘do well’ often means to be successful, but it can also speak about progress in someone who has been ill – when they start recovering, they are ‘doing well’. 

Make

Make is commonly used when talking about what we are doing when we speak.

We make:

  • A promise
  • A deal/offer
  • A statement
  • A compromise
  • A mistake/error
  • A complaint
  • An excuse
  • A suggestion
  • An apology
  • A point/comment
  • A threat

We can also sometimes use it when referring to planned activities. First we make our plans, then we have them. For example, we make an appointment at the doctor’s office when we telephone to schedule a visit. Once that has been arranged, we have an appointment

Make is also used in other common set expressions:

  • Make friends (before you have friends, you have to make them)
  • Make time (if you make time for someone, you find an occasion where you are able to do something with them)
  • Make progress
  • Make peace
  • Make money (again, before you have money, you have to make it!)
  • Make a difference
  • Make a wish

Even more confusingly, the expression make do also exists! If you make do, it means that you manage with what you have available. A wartime expression used in the UK during the Second World War was ‘make do and mend’, as people had to get by with the little they had, and repair whatever they could. Another thing to bear in mind with the verbs ‘have’, ‘make’, and ‘do’, is that these guidelines are not always to be trusted. Collocations typically have to be memorised, and the best way to learn them is through practice! It’s important to expose yourself to as much English as you possibly can to hear collocations the way they’re naturally used. 

Listen to the radio, download podcasts, watch English-language TV shows, read newspapers, books, and magazines, and surround yourself with the language whenever you can to learn English fast. If you really want to take your studies further, a language stay in an English-speaking country will allow for 24/7 immersion – the perfect way to practise these pesky collocations!

Start your immersion

By Emily Lawrenson

What do you think?