What's the difference?

Make/do

 

This one is a classic in confusion.

 

DO is a general word for action, for doing something: 

  • Let’s do the cleaning.

  • He’s doing the driving.

  • I’ve done all the housework this morning.

  • Do you want me to do the photocopying?

 

It is particularly used when we talk about an activity without saying exactly what it is:

  • Let’s do something!

  • I’m bored. I’ve got nothing to do.

  • So if you weren’t in the office yesterday, what were you doing?

 

We also use do when talking about work:

  • What do you do in the office?

  • I’ve done many things in my working career.

 

MAKE, however, means to PRODUCE, CREATE, CONSTRUCT, BUILD.

 

So you do the shopping (the activity of going out and buying things), and you make a shopping list (you are creating this with a pen and a piece of paper), you do a course (this is an activity, it's not something you create) and you do the test (you are writing).

 

And just to make the point further (I am creating this example for you to help you understand this better), you make mistakes. It is your fault, you created them.

 

Incidentally, we can also say take a course, but we always say make a film (produce a movie) but take a photograph. Should you take a film, this can mean literally taking a roll of film from your analogue camera and then taking it to be developed. These days, with modern digital technology, this is a bit rare.

 

There are a number of examples, particularly with idiomatic expressions, where using do or make may not be so clear.

 

You make a phone call and make love to someone are two good examples when perhaps do would seem more obvious.

 

And if you are asked to make your bed, you are expected to tidy and arrange all the bedsheets/linen so they look nice and neat on your bed, and not to get tools and materials (wood is quite good) to physically and literally make a bed!

 

There are many books (TEE included) that say if you are not sure of a sentence, then make is more likely to be correct, but that doesn’t mean you can use this for all examples, so check a dictionary.

 

Otherwise, the above rules about do and make generally work well: use make for producing, creating, constructing, building, and do for all the other general activities that are not necessarily directly connected with producing, creating, constructing, or building things (but you can say, for example, I’m doing all the work as regards making a cake).

 

Just to confuse you – which is something I enjoy doing, as you have now learnt through reading this website – there is also the idiom make do, which means to be able to manage only with what is available: We’ve only got your older brother’s school uniform, so you’ll have to make do with that. 

 

As mentioned above, we usually take a photograph, but there can be a little confusion as to whether we take or make a film.

 

The rule is this: If we make a film, we are usually involved in one or more processes of making one complete movie:

  • I’m making a film about my adventures in Thailand.

  • 20th-Century Fox makes several films a year.

 

If we take a film, this is usually filming something in the same way we take pictures for our personal use, rather than the view of making it as one part of a complete film with a beginning and an end, and usually telling some kind of story:

  • I’d like to take a quick bit of film of the Market Square and show it to my friends later.

  • Did you take any film of the children on the beach yesterday?

 

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