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Much Ado about ‘Do’

In Japanese there are two verbs for ‘do’. GaijinPot investigates the subtle differences between the two dos.

By 3 min read

One of the challenges of learning a foreign language is that there are always a lot of verbs that have similar meanings. Even the briefest search of language forums reveals pages of people arguing over the minute differences between them. Of course, Japanese is no exception. Two of the most common verbs that learners find confusing are やる and する, the two words for ‘do’.

If you say both する and やる out loud to yourself, you should notice that やる has a slightly harsher sound than its cousin. Unsurprisingly, やる is usually considered a more informal version of する. やる is seldom used in any kind of formal situation or in written Japanese.

Grammatically, one of the major uses of する is to make nouns into verbs. So taking a noun like 勉強べんきょう (Study) as an example, it can be easily be converted into its verb form by adding する to make 勉強する (To study).

In a similar way, if I wanted to talk about tennis, I might say テニスをする (I play tennis). In this case, する is acting in a similar way to the English verb ‘to play’. While English often uses different verbs depending on what sport is being played such as ‘I practice Tae Kwon Do’ or ‘I go bowling’, Japanese simply uses する for all eventualities.

From here, things get a lot more complicated. One curious use of やる is that it is often used with things that are concrete, can be seen or has an effect in the real world. You would never hear a Japanese person connect words like あい (Love), くら(Dark) or 想像そうぞう (Imagine) with (を)やる, for example.

While やる can usually be considered as an approximate equivalent of the English word ‘do’, it also has another use as a way to put the speaker above the receiver of an act during an exchange. As a general rule this form is too harsh to be used with anyone that the speaker feels emotionally close to.

So while you’ll likely see はなみずをやる (Give the plants some water), you will rarely see a similar sentence about pets or children. One interesting exception is when someone is using a machine for giving food/ drink to their pet. These machines are still commonly called 餌/水えさ / すいやり用品ようひん.

Of course, while most owners view their pets as too much a part of the family to use a cold verb like やる, there are other animals that are not so beloved. やる is, of course, used when talking about ranch animals or animals breed for the diary industry.

After offering these general rules, it is worthwhile writing my usual acknowledge that, as with any vocabulary/ grammar point, it is worth going out and listening to how Japanese people naturally use both verbs in their day-to-day lives. Never has this been truer than with the verbs やる and する. Often one verb or the other is preferred simply because that is the way it is.

If you ask Japanese people why they say やった (I did it!) and never した; やれやれ (Go for it) instead of しろしろ; and why する is found in so many grammar forms such ~すればいい (Should~) or ~にする (Become~), most Japanese will simply shrug their shoulders and use another common する-form: しょうがない (It can’t be helped).

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  • しょうがない doesn’t come from a suru form (I guess you were thinking of しよう shiyou, the volitional form), instead it comes from 仕様がない shiyou ga nai.
    While there is an etymological connection between suru and 仕 (as we can see in 仕方ない shi-kata nai, that basically has the same meaning of しょうがない), you most certainly can’t say Shou ga nai includes suru’s volitional form.

    Finally you can say tenisu wo yaru/yatteiru, no problem with that, while you won’t hear benkyou wo yatteiru. Like someone already said there’s the idea of perform an action.

    And again linguisst say you shouldn’t use ageru for your pet but yaru, because using ageru is too polite in this case and you’d sound ridiculous, but I do agree that most people don’t know.

    However when you talk about your pet or even about your kids in a more formal contest, like a workplace, talking with colleagues, you should really use yarimasu.

  • أبا الحكم says:

    Yaru kind of gives me more of the “feeling” of to perform sth rather than simply do…

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