Evolution of the English present progressive tense
October 4, 2011 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Have the rules for using the present progressive (continuous) tense in English recently evolved/changed?

Most grammars for English learners seem to say that the progressive tense is never or seldom used with "stative" verbs - verbs expressing emotions or mental states, etc. I have always agreed with that and taught the tense that way.
But recently a student has pointed out to me that she has heard some stative verbs that are used in the progressive tense. Examples: (To a kindergarten child): "Are you missing your mom?" "I'm really liking the recent changes in the student newspaper." "I'm assuming that the administration is acting on good faith in this issue." Etc., etc. I must say that I have heard similar usages.
Is this just a case of informal vs. formal, or spoken vs. written, or in fact, have we started using some of these verbs in the progressive tense, perhaps to express a slightly different nuance than would be possible with the simple present?
posted by feelinggood to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not seeing* why the rule for the present progressive would be any different with mental states than with any other verbs. Could you give an example of when this usage would be improper, or a link to any discussion of what the problem is supposed to be?

* I suppose some would insist that I should have written: "I fail to see..."
posted by John Cohen at 9:32 AM on October 4, 2011

You're right that this is a change - when I was younger (oh, ten or fifteen years ago) I remember playing with some similar turns of phrase and knowing they were 'weird'. I didn't know any rule for it but my feeling was that "I like it" is the in-the-moment present tense already, and it sounded odd for someone to say 'I'm liking it'.

I think the choice to use one versus the other is based in how ephemeral the feeling is - e.g., I'm liking these changes right now, but ask me in a week and I may not. 'Do you miss your mom?' could theoretically be general and sort of background, but if a kid is crying then "Are you missing your mom?" has the implication of looking for the reason why s/he is upset in this moment. (For example - if your spouse goes out of town, "Oh, I missed you all week!" but you aren't actively in the throes of miserably wishing they were with you that whole time). It's still the case that you can talk about things you're doing right now (I miss you, I hate him so much right now, etc) without needing that tense, unlike more active verbs (I'm eating a sandwich, I'm watching TV). I think it's just an additional nuance.
posted by Lady Li at 9:41 AM on October 4, 2011

To sort of answer my own question, this About.com page has a bunch of examples. (Of coures, About.com is not the greatest source.) Interestingly, even though that page says generally not to use the present progressive with a mental state, they also give examples where it's a good idea and even necessary to put a mental-state verb in the present progressive in order to convey your intended meaning:
Non-Continuous Meanings

feel = 'have an opinion' - He feels he should get a second chance.
see = 'understand' - I see what you mean.
think = 'have an opinion' - I think we should leave immediately.
appear = 'look like' - That appears to be stale.
look = 'seem' - It looks impossible!
taste = 'have a taste' - That tastes yummy!

Continuous Meanings

feel = 'feel physically' - I'm feeling awful this afternoon.
see = 'visit' - She's seeing a doctor this morning.
think = 'use the brain' - He's thinking hard about the problem.
appear = 'be on stage / perform' - Jack Daniels is performing at the Paramount tonight.
look = 'stare at' - I'm looking at that strange man.
taste = 'use the mouth' - The cook is tasting the sauce!
If you take the "thinking hard" example, surely you wouldn't want to prohibit people from talking about a present effort being made continuously over a long period of time. "I'm trying hard in this class, but I'm having trouble understanding the material" seems to be a completely proper sentence to describe a student who has been struggling throughout an entire semester, in contrast with a sentence like: "I tried hard on that exam, so I was disappointed with my grade."
posted by John Cohen at 9:42 AM on October 4, 2011

I'm not seeing* why the rule for the present progressive would be any different with mental states than with any other verbs. Could you give an example of when this usage would be improper, or a link to any discussion of what the problem is supposed to be?

Maybe it has to do with the following examples:

"I am walking" seems fine.

"I am eating" seems fine.

"I am liking" does not seem fine.
posted by 3FLryan at 9:42 AM on October 4, 2011

I'm not seeing* why the rule for the present progressive would be any different with mental states than with any other verbs

Presumably because a stative verb implies an ongoing condition already. Consider: "Do you miss your mom?" "Do you like the changes in the newspaper?" "I assume that the administration is acting in good faith."

Compare those with "I am eating the pie." That can't so easily be changed to "I eat the pie" without changing the meaning.
posted by jedicus at 9:43 AM on October 4, 2011

Of coures --> Of course. I'm wishing there were an edit function.
posted by John Cohen at 9:43 AM on October 4, 2011

"I am liking" does not seem fine.

Why not? The OP's gave an example: "I'm really liking the recent changes in the student newspaper." I'm not understanding what's wrong with that sentence.
posted by John Cohen at 9:44 AM on October 4, 2011

I know I do this sometimes. I would say that the progressive construction carries a stronger sense of right now, but it's not strictly necessary. You could be looking at the student newspaper and say I'm really liking the recent changes ... or I really like the recent changes ... and have them be equally felicitous, but I think I would be slightly more inclined to place the former in a context where the student newspaper is being looked at in that specific moment.

But individual intuition may vary, and it's hard to pin these things down anyway. Linguistic research is tough.
posted by Kosh at 9:46 AM on October 4, 2011

Why not? The OP's gave an example: "I'm really liking the recent changes in the student newspaper." I'm not understanding what's wrong with that sentence.

"I am liking" taken as a stand-alone sentence seems to me like an incomplete thought. I want to ask, you are liking what? Whereas, "I am eating" seems like a complete thought - I understand what you mean - you are eating something. Perhaps in the first example you just mean you are liking something, and maybe that is fine, and grammatically correct. But in day to day usage the information that you are liking something is useless to me, whereas the information that you are eating something is useful, so this is perhaps why the first example seems wrong.
posted by 3FLryan at 9:47 AM on October 4, 2011

Language evolves; sometimes it's a pendulum swing back to the norm. But with a long-running, highly successful ad campaign by one of the planet's largest corporations using this syntax, you can expect it to stick around. So yes, the rules have changed.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 10:02 AM on October 4, 2011

This usage doesn't seem new to me, but that's probably a matter of dialect. At any rate, I don't think it has acceptable in formal or standard situations and would only be used among close associates, or with younger people (Some politicians use it to sound 'folksy' though). And it serves to stress the immediacy of the state. (The 'assuming' example could sometimes sneek into more formal presentations though)

And we could argue that those aren't really participles but are names for the mental states, but that would be begging the question (they aren't participles because we don't use that participle there.)
posted by Webnym at 10:10 AM on October 4, 2011

My sense is that the "I am something-ing X" is idiomatic.

The OP's gave an example: "I'm really liking the recent changes in the student newspaper." I'm not understanding what's wrong with that sentence.

"I (really) like..." is the standard grammar. I don't know the tenses involved, but whatever it is, "I am liking X" is not a common tense in American English.
posted by rhizome at 10:22 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, I'm thinking you are right, this is an evolving thing. From the examples you give, "missing" and "assuming" have been around for yonks in fact, but "I'm liking" is recent in its widespread usage.
posted by londongeezer at 10:55 AM on October 4, 2011

I'm concurring with Terminal Verbosity. A heaping serving of Micky D's, topped with Timberlake, with a chaser of Superbad created a perfect storm for the present progressive.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:26 AM on October 4, 2011

This is probably terrible methodology, but Google books has roughly the same proportion of "I am liking" to "I like" both before and after 1950. Before 1950 there are 186 "I am liking" and 1,800,000 "I like". After 1950 there are 835 "I am liking" and 7,560,000 "I like." By this measure, "I am liking" was actually slightly more popular before 1950 than after. Of course even if those numbers themselves are reliable, it's so rare that it's probably hard to draw conclusions.

Some of the pre-1950 results:

From an ad in the minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Church. North Ohio Conference - 1881: "TW Lane says : " I am liking my ' Hall [Typewriter] ' better every day."

Annals of a publishing house - 1897: "On the whole, I may say that I am liking [employment at Baldwin's] very well."

Charles Kingsley: his letters and memoires of his life: Volume 1 - 1877: "I am liking more and more the experimental religion of the Low Church School."

The yellow danger - 1898: " 'By Jove, I am liking you !,' His lips were at her ear."

American magazine: Volume 53 - 1901: "At all events then I am not doubting she was a good lassie, Campbell or no Campbell, and I am liking it your father went back and married her."

Browsing through the rest, I notice that more than one hit seems to be in Scottish or Irish dialect. That reminds me that I've heard this construction on Talk Like A Pirate Day -- "y'arr, I be missin' me old mum today." So I wonder if it might arise from some (real or stereotypical) dialect.

I also notice that every instance is attributed to a speaker in the text. That could argue for informal usage, but "I am liking" is inherently more likely to show up in quotes, so it's hard to know. If you could come up with a common example in the third person, that might help narrow it down.

In conclusion, I heartily recommend that you all spend the rest of your day reading Google Book results from the late 1800s.
posted by Honorable John at 12:16 PM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honorable John, your methodology is horrible. However, it's better than everyone else's, especially mine for whom this is only a thought experiment. The problem is that Google Books has a lot (a lot!) more pre-50s than post-50s books (copyright laws among other things.). (For something used informally the spoken corpuses would work better, but I don't know how to get those broken down by year.) Yet, I'm still surprised that 'liking' showed up so often pre-50s, that (and its root) is a word that is used much more and in many evolved ways now.

I'm not surprised that this formation shows up though, nor that it shows up mainly in quotes. It's a vernacular marker, and is definitely nothing new to Midland nor Upland Southern (NA) dialects, and I imagine it shows up in other dialects too. But to the best of my knowledge, it remains in the informal register so far, and its being used in ads or in Sarah Palin speeches doesn't change that, but it doesn't prove that it want become acceptable at job interviews soon.

(I don't think 'assuming' in the examples is a stative verb. And that 'missing', used in the since it would be to a young child seems noun-ish to me. "Liking', 'lovin'' (a la the McD ad) have got to be participle though.)
posted by Webnym at 4:14 PM on October 4, 2011

As Honorable John points out, this is probably not a recent development.

Mair and Leech 2006 used corpora from the 1960s and 1990s to look at changes in English syntax over the last fifty years. They discovered that the progressive is generally more frequent than earlier and it has crept into a few niches it didn't occupy before, but they found no evidence for a rise of a stative progressive:

"The phenomenon of the “stative progressive” tends to be curiously overrated in the literature on recent changes. In many cases apparent exceptional or innovative uses are the result of polysemy. Thus, forget in its sense of neglect (you’re forgetting your mother) is clearly compatible with the progressive. In others, they can be easily handled as contextually licenced rule-breaking for communicative-rhetorical effect (as in are you seeing what I am seeing? – in which the point is that visual perception, which is normally subconscious, is made the subject of conscious reflection. See Visser (1973: 1973–86) for a rich compilation of relevant data." (p. 339, in Aarts and McMahon, Handbook of English Linguistics)

This may not be the end of the story, since a number of other sources *do* claim that it is a recent development, but without evidence I'm prepared to take their word for it.
posted by dd42 at 10:38 PM on October 4, 2011

Progressives are used in more than one way in English. For example:
I'm working. (This is what I'm doing right now.)

I've been working late a lot lately.

I'm working extra hours this week because we've got a tight deadline.

(In the last two cases, I'm not necessarily working right now, but it's not generally true that I work late or put in extra hours. It's a temporary situation.)
The first kind of progressive is not generally used with stative verbs, but the second one, where it's used to mark something as temporary or limited situation, is.

Two of your examples are clearly examples of this:
"I'm really liking the recent changes in the student newspaper."

(The changes are recent. So far, I like them.)

"I'm assuming that the administration is acting on good faith in this issue."

(I'm provisionally giving them the benefit of the doubt in this case. I might not if I had more information, and I might not in other situations.)
I assume the question "Are you missing you mom?" would be asked of a kid that had been happily playing earlier but now seems distressed. (They don't generally miss their mom that much, but there are times when they do.)
posted by nangar at 5:34 PM on October 6, 2011

(Typos really inspire confidence in answers to questions like this.)
posted by nangar at 6:19 PM on October 6, 2011

Wow! Thanks, everyone.
posted by feelinggood at 6:31 PM on October 6, 2011

« Older How do I scrape information from a website?   |   What's the best way to display multiple job titles... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.