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expressions with do/did/done

Navid, studying English in the United States, writes:

I have difficulty understanding the meaning of done in this sentence:

  • It's not done to call your teachers by their first names.

I would like to know why done doesn't appear to make very much sense in this sentence in American English.

Roger Woodham replies:

In British English there are a large number of expressions with do/did/done in regular use.

In your example, Navid, it's simply a matter of usage. Americans that I have consulted would all recognise this expression, as they would an almost identical expression it's (not) the done thing to, though they might not use them actively in speech or writing.

In British English, both of these expressions are commonly used. The meaning is that it is (not) socially acceptable to do this. It may not be politically correct, to use another similar expression to describe actions which might appear insulting to particular groups of people (also sometimes referred to as PC and non-PC).

Compare the following:

  • In this society, it is quite the done thing to eat with your hands.
  • It's not the done thing to poke fun at disabled people.
  • It's not done to remain seated when your National Anthem is played.
  • It is clearly politically incorrect (non-PC) to refer to childcare workers as nursemaids.

Sometimes, expressions which may appear similar at first glance have quite different shades of meaning.

Use of the past participle done in expressions normally suggests completed action, but whereas done and dusted means successfully completed and refers to something that you are upbeat about, over and done with suggests something mildly unpleasant which you are pleased is now finished:

  • I finally completed that project last month. Yes, it's all done and dusted.
  • At long last their divorce has come through. Now the whole thing's over and done with.

What about he's done his nut and it's done his nut in?

In both of these nut means head, as in nutcase to describe someone who is crazy or insane. But are these two very informal expressions the same or different? What do you think?

  • I didn't have time to clear up after the party and my mum's done her nut.
  • He was so tired he couldn't concentrate on the details in his contract. It did his nut in.

Clearly, they are different. To do your nut means to lose your temper, to fly into a rage. It did his nut in means that it confused or bemused him.


And what about have done with and do away with? Are these two informal expressions the same, similar or different?

  • Aren't you still going out with Robert?
    No, I've done with him.
  • They've done away with the death penalty in many countries recently.

Slightly similar, though have done with means end relations with someone and do away with means abolish or put an end to.

If we substituted done away with for have done with in the first example, it would mean murdered!


How about do a good turn to and done to a turn? Same, similar or different?

  • He did me a good turn and took care of Felix while I was on holiday.
  • The goose was done to a turn: lovely soft breast meat with the juices oozing out of it!

Quite different: done to a turn means cooked perfectly and do a good turn means do someone a favour.


In very common use are: Well done! All done! and Done!
But how exactly are they used?

  • How would you like your steak, sir?
    Well done, please. I don't want to see any blood.
  • You've done really well to win first prize! Well done!
  • Have you finished that job, Asha?
    Yeah, all done.
  • What about you Jim? All done?
    All done!
  • If I offered you £200 for your old car, would you accept it?

Well done = cooked thoroughly or slightly overcooked
Well done! = words of congratulation for someone who has done something successfully
All done = completely finished
Done! = one-word acceptance of an offer or a bet someone has made


    As an introduction or greeting, remember that How do you do? and Hi! How're you doing? are complete opposites in terms of formality - informality:
  • Hi Bob! How're ya doin'?
    I'm fine, thanks.
  • How do you do?
    How do you do?
    (Must be accompanied by a handshake and no kisses!)


If you want to practise using some of these phrases look at our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

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