The difference between ‘do’ and ‘make’.

'Do' is for actions. 'Make' is for creating.

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Abstract

In general terms, the verb ‘do’ is used when referring to an action, task or activity. On the other hand, ‘make’ involves some kind of constructing, building or creating. Although these general rules work in a lot of cases, there is a big list of exceptions out there.

When learning English as a second language, many learners struggle with the difference between ‘do’ and ‘make’ as there is only a subtle difference between the two. Other languages don’t always make this distinction as for example in the Spanish ‘hacer‘ or the French ‘faire‘.

The General Rule of Thumb

Do‘ is used for actions, tasks or activities. It is used when talking about accomplishing or executing a task and it does not usually produce a physical object. Do also contains an element of duty and responsibility. Examples: do laundry, do the dishes, do exercise, do business, …

Make‘ is used for construction, building or creation. These activities usually create something that you can touch and involves something you choose to do. Examples: make a dress, make a painting, make money, …

There are however a lot of exceptions to these rules as for example one says ‘to make your bed’ when referring to the action of making your bed clean, nice and tidy. The exceptions can for the most part be put into several categories, although some still will require learning by heart. And if that’s was not enough, there are a lot of situations in which both ‘do’ and ‘make’ are possible, depending on the context.
A visual overview of the most common differences between do and make

More about ‘do’

Housework: when talking about actions that involve some kind of work around the house or at work. E.g. doing your hair, the washing, laundry, dishes, shopping, gardening, ironing, housework, homework, your job or business.
Generalizations: when you refer to any kind of action in general without specifying. E.g. doing anything, something, nothing or everything.
Training: when you are learning or training for something. E.g. doing exercises or a course.
Exceptions. You do a crossword, a favour or damage. You do good or you do bad.

More about ‘make’

Speaking: when the action involves speaking. E.g. making a sound, a noise, a comment, a joke or a phone call
Intangible: when you talk about something that happens in your mind, something you can’t touch. E.g. making a choice, a decision, a promise, an effort, a suggestions, an appointment or a mistake.
Money: when talking about finances. E.g. making money, profit or loss.
Foods&Meals: when talking about preparing food. E.g. making breakfast, lunch, dinner, food or a cup of tea.

Exceptions. You make your bed, a mess, friends, love or a journey.

The Context Makes the Difference

Sometimes the context needs to dictate the choice between ‘do’ and ‘make’ as in for example in someone filling in a crossword puzzle. He or she is doing the puzzle. However, the person who created that crossword probably makes crossword puzzles for a living. The same would go for a person doing a course (participating in the learning) and the teacher making that course (developing the training).

Doing the Learning

The best way to learn the difference is simply to practice and visualize the categories and memorize the exceptions. Trying to understand the meaning and creatively trying to apply the rule to every exception will more likely confuse than help you.

Further Reading

Yahoo Answers: several short answers about this topic.
Learn English: good explanation and a long list of exceptions.
Vocabulary: long lists for ‘do’ and ‘make’, no explanation though.
QualityTime ESL: some nice poems about the difference.
ESL Teachers Board: ideas on how to teach the difference.
Ezine Articles: about teaching the difference, includes good list of expressions.

Improving this Article

I would appreciate comments on how to improve this article. If you have any other interesting sources please leave them in the comments’ section or just edit this article yourself!