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the present progressive in English
Thread poster: NancyLynn

NancyLynn
Canada
Local time: 18:09
Member (2002)
French to English
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MODERATOR
Dec 2, 2006

Good evening all,
This is something that has been bothering me for some time: the correct usage of the present progressive in English.

For example, I am currently reading James Mitchener's Texas. Throughout the novel he uses the present progressive, for example: "He did something until deciding to do something else."

It grates me - I would use "He did something until he decided to do something else."

Here's another example: "For more than 30 years, since it obtained its independence in 1960, the Ivory Coast..."
Some would argue that the proper way to put it would be "For more than 30 years, since obtaining its independence in 1960, the Ivory Coast..."

I'm interested in your thoughts on this.

Nancy

[Edited at 2006-12-02 02:10]


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transparx  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:09
English to Italian
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some thoughts... Dec 2, 2006

NancyLynn wrote:

Good evening all,
This is something that has been bothering me for some time: the correct usage of the present progressive in English.

For example, I am currently reading James Mitchener's Texas. Throughout the novel he uses the present progressive, for example: "He did something until deciding to do something else."

It grates me - I would use "He did something until he decided to do something else."

Here's another example: "For more than 30 years, since it obtained its independence in 1960, the Ivory Coast..."
Some would argue that the proper way to put it would be "For more than 30 years, since obtaining its independence in 1960, the Ivory Coast..."

I'm interested in your thoughts on this.

Nancy

[Edited at 2006-12-02 02:10]


Hi Nancy,

The two examples you quote do not contain the present progressive, but gerundive forms. "Deciding" in the first sentence and "obtaining" in the second are "heads" of reduced adverbial clauses. In English, just like in many (perhaps all?) other languages, it is possible to reduce clauses. This is usually done when the speaker or writer wants to omit the subject of the dependent clause.

Typically, in order to reduce a (dependent) clause (bear in mind that noun, adjective, adverb clauses can all be reduced --although reduction is governed by slightly different principles depending on the type of clause), a gerund or infinitive is used in place of the original finite form. In the case of adverb clauses , what some people call 'subordinating conjunction' and others 'clause word' is usually kept, although it can sometimes be dropped along with the subject (most notably 'while' and 'after'). The (subordinating) conjunction 'because,' on the other hand, is obligatorily dropped, as shown in the following sentences.
1) Because he was poor, he couldn't afford to buy a car.
2) * Because being poor, he couldn't afford to buy a car.
3) Being poor, he couldn't afford to buy a car.
(The * indicates ungrammaticality).

Why do people use such reductions? Undoubtedly, they do so in order to make their sentences lighter. And given that reductions are always but an option -i.e., never ever mandatory, - they are considered to be style rather than grammar. I agree that they fall under style after all; however, there is certainly a section of grammar that merits the name of 'grammar of reductions.' For instance, reducing sentences that are not candidates for reduction yields ungrammaticality, as shown in the following.
4) * While crossing the street, a car hit me.
5) While crossing the street, I was hit by a car.
Sentence number 4 is ungrammatical, as it implies that 'the car' -that is, the subject of the main clause- was crossing the street.

To conclude, the main principle governing reduction is what people call "recoverability." Elided terms must be recoverable. In (4), for instance, the subject is recoverable all right, but, unfortunately, it is the "wrong" subject!

[Edited at 2006-12-02 21:58]


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Patricia Rosas  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:09
Spanish to English
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Your examples ... Dec 2, 2006

NancyLynn wrote:

"He did something until deciding to do something else."

It grates me - I would use "He did something until he decided to do something else."

Here's another example: "For more than 30 years, since it obtained its independence in 1960, the Ivory Coast..."
Some would argue that the proper way to put it would be "For more than 30 years, since obtaining its independence in 1960, the Ivory Coast..."

Nancy

[Edited at 2006-12-02 02:10]


First, thanks to Transparx for the explanations and examples.

But I'm confused by Nancy Lynn's question. In the first example, you say that the gerundive should NOT be used, but in the second one, you say that it SHOULD be used. Why is that?

I see nothing amiss with the Michener quote (except his name is spelled wrong), but the second example is flawed writing imho. It is redundant, and the "For more than 30 years" doesn't help the text survive the passage of time (obviously, it wasn't written now, but around 1990).

It would be simplest to write, "Since obtaining its independence in 1960, the Ivory Coast..." Using "Since it obtained its independence in 1960," (without the "For more than ...), could be misconstrued as meaning "Because it obtained" ...

So, in both cases, I see nothing wrong with the gerundive.

But I'm glad to see that someone cares enough to think about these things...thanks for posting the question!


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NancyLynn
Canada
Local time: 18:09
Member (2002)
French to English
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MODERATOR
TOPIC STARTER
Gerundive NOT present progressive Dec 2, 2006

You are absolutely right, transparx, and thank you very much for your observations.

However now that the floor is open, I look forward to other examples, explanations, comments, and tangential remarks!

Thanks to all who post.

Nancy

[Edited at 2006-12-02 05:04]


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Jussi Rosti  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 01:09
Member (2005)
English to Finnish
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I'm Lovin' It Dec 2, 2006

What about this McCampaign?


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xxxmediamatrix
Local time: 18:09
Spanish to English
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Understood? Dec 2, 2006

I presume (because grammar is not my strongest subject, even if I spent a number of years in English secondary schools whose names included 'Grammar') that the technique so nicely explained and illustrated by Transparx is what less erudite people like me call "leave out wot's 'understood'".

The problem, of course, - and we see this time and again in Kudoz questions from inexperienced translators - is that very often grammatically-reduced sentences that are easily understood by a true anglophone reader cannot be properly understood by non-natives. And, taken to extremes, reduction causes problems for anglophones, too; and it can end up creating ambiguities as shown in Transparx' example 4.

When translating and editing documents such as international engineering standards, it has always been my practice to avoid reduction altogether - even if the text ends up being a bit 'stodgy' for true anglophone readers. Why? Simply because the majority of those who need to read and fully understand these documents will have English as their 2nd, 3rd ... nth language, and they are likely not to understand what's supposed to be 'understood'.

MediaMatrix


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Patricia Rosas  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:09
Spanish to English
+ ...
Technical writing is different from literary writing ... Dec 2, 2006

mediamatrix wrote:

When translating and editing documents such as international engineering standards, it has always been my practice to avoid reduction altogether - even if the text ends up being a bit 'stodgy' for true anglophone readers. Why? Simply because the majority of those who need to read and fully understand these documents will have English as their 2nd, 3rd ... nth language, and they are likely not to understand what's supposed to be 'understood'.

MediaMatrix


MediaMatrix is right that when meaning must be absolutely clear, fluidity ends up being sacrificed. But very skilled writers can usually convey what they mean precisely even if they choose to omit some words or "telegraph" certain ideas.

One example comes to mind: Many of my clients tend to use a label for a key concept, but then, remembering what they were taught in school about redundancy, they substitute synonyms for that label, causing the reader to wonder if the new word is a referent of the key concept or represents the introduction of a new idea (through the use of a different label).

Skilled writers can stick to the label (which is an important cognitive signifer) and play with other aspects of their passages to avoid redundancy...

I don't put a high value on the writing skills of engineers 'cause I want them to focus on doing what I cannot: making things work


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RHELLER
United States
Local time: 16:09
French to English
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IMO it's about style Dec 2, 2006

Hi Nancy,

Interesting topic. My response is...style!

Remember that is fiction and style is what makes or breaks a fiction writer. We need to use whatever is grammatically available to us to give a "feel" to the language and, therefore, to the story.

I mainly do technical work and must often parse my phrases; that can be very frustrating for a writer. Fiction writers don't have to worry about that - they should take some liberty with the language.

If oodles of people were not comprehending the book, it certainly would not be a bestseller.


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Marcus Malabad  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 00:09
Member (2002)
German to English
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present progressive Dec 3, 2006

To everybody,

Nancy opened this thread about the present progressive and NOT about the proper use of adverbs. Please stay on topic.

Marcus


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xxxPuicz  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:09
Swedish to English
Convention misused Dec 3, 2006

You’re right NancyLynn, the construction "He did something until deciding to do something else" grates, perhaps because it’s lousy English.
The progressive forms are more dynamic than the simple forms of the verb in English and it looks like Michener, if he does use a form like the one you gave, was looking to introduce some drama into the construction.
(3) “Deciding he wanted a change, James stopped writing novels.” This effectively combines the two sentences, (1) “James decided he wanted a change” and (2) “James stopped writing novels”. In (3), ‘deciding’ is a present participle conventionally used to join the two ideas of (1) and (2) but really has nothing to do with the gerund or a progressive tense. It’s simply a conventional kind of conjunction.
Mich would be guilty of throwing a grammatical spanner in the works by using this kind of conventional conjunction after the conjunction ‘until’. He might have achieved a dynamic effect – if that was his aim – by instead using an adjective with the “progressive” ending, - ing, e.g. “He gave all he could give until the stultifying chain-of-command bureaucracy began its demoralising grind.”


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