Public radio show 'On the Media'
had a short grammar feature at the end of the hour, featuring what they called the "largest change in grammar since Shakespeare." Being a hopeless grammar freak, I couldn't stop listening after that headline!
However, I doubt their assessment of its importance. They were discussing the switch from the 'passival' form, common around 1800, to the 'progressive passive'.
Example they gave: in the passival form, you might say The refreshments are preparing
or The house is cleaning.
In the newer progressive passive form, we'd be more likely to say The refreshments are being prepared
or The house is being cleaned.
The passival form evolved from an earlier sort of prepositional gerund with 'on': The refreshments are on-preparing
>>> The refreshments are a-preparing
>>> The refreshments are preparing.
In fact the original isn't all that strange; we could say The refreshments are under preparation
which has the same basic construction.
And the passival form isn't entirely gone, either. As I was walking around the house thinking about this, I poured a cup of coffee and noted an item plugged into the same outlet as the coffeemaker: The battery is charging.
This seems to have a slightly different feel, perhaps only because it's a familiar phrase, but I can't see how it's logically different.
= = = = =
A separate quibble with their description of simple vs progressive tenses. They're using the old prescriptivist version, the version I learned in 7th grade grammar class. This description is good for past tense, but it was never correct for present tense.
In past tense, the short form does denote a 'pinpoint past', and the was ___ing
form does denote continuity. I poured a cup of coffee
means that the pouring happened once, it's all done, and nothing else happened during the pour ... or at least nothing I'm going to tell you about in the rest of the sentence. I was pouring a cup of coffee
means that the duration of the pouring is the important fact, and that I'm going to tell you about something else that happened within that interval. (Later thought: A coffee-pour is such a short event that it's a dubious example for this distinction.)
Present tense doesn't work that way because there cannot be a 'pinpoint present'. The hand of time is always moving, and any attempt to say what's happening exactly now
is impossible. We understood this instinctively even before we invented clocks! The is ___ing
form is the closest we can get to a simple or pinpoint present. I'm pouring coffee
means that the pour is happening in the same time interval when I'm talking about it. The short form is actually the more continuous
type of present tense. I pour coffee
doesn't mean I'm doing it exactly now; rather it tells you that coffee-pouring is my constant tendency or perhaps my job. It's what I do all the time.
Things get weird when the sentence specifies a time. The short form still denotes a constant tendency or job: I mow the lawn on Thursday.
But the is ___ing
form mysteriously slips into the future: I'm mowing the lawn on Thursday
means exactly the same as I'll mow the lawn on Thursday.
Labels: Language update