Grammar and usage

Last week a friend suggested that it is grammatically correct to say “I go to the bar now”, even if it’s more usual to say “I’m going to the bar now”. We suggested that in English as spoken in the UK the first would be considered wrong, even though it’s understandable. My friend insisted that this is down to usage rather than grammar; that the first version is grammatically correct, and that in varieties of English spoken in Uganda and other parts of East Africa, the first version is more common. We then had quite a discussion about the differences between grammar and usage.

For me grammar is a description of how a language is used, rather than a set of rules on how a language should be used. Rules in a descriptive grammar arise from usage and can change as usage changes, whereas in prescriptive grammar the rules are seen as absolute and unchanging and are based on a theoretical ideal of the language that few people actually use. What is your view on this?

The simple present tense in standard English is often used to indicate a habitual action, e.g. “I go to the pub every Thursday night”, while the continuous present tense is used for current action, e.g. “I’m going to the pub on Thursday night” (a specific instance). I hadn’t thought much about this distinction until I learnt Irish and found that there are different tense for habitual and non-habitual action: “Tá sé ag dul go dtí an teach tábhairne ar oíche Déardaoin” (He’s going to the pub on Thursday night); “Bíonn sé ag dul go dtí an teach tábhairne ar oíche Déardaoin” (He goes to the pub on Thursday night). The second version might be rendered as “He does be going to the pub on Thursday night” in Hiberno-English.

If you have learnt English as a second/foreign language, do you find the differences between the simple and continuous tenses difficult to grasp? This is likely to depend on whether there is such a distinction on your native language.

17 thoughts on “Grammar and usage

  1. I don’t remember having difficulties with continuous tenses, but I learned them a long time ago. Now I use them without thinking about it, even though my native language (French) doesn’t have this distinction.

    The most difficult tense for me was the present perfect; even today I’m not always sure when I have to use it.

  2. I’ll second your notion about descriptive grammar, and add that the practice of such a grammarian would be to watch usage patterns and understand when the time had come for a grammar change. However, about this particular instance, I just feel the distinction between habitual and non-habitual action is the better choice (although as an Indian immigrant to America (only 6 when my family made the move) my family’s Indian English always sounds wacky to me compared to what I learnt).

  3. I learned English as a young adult when I moved to Canada and I have no problem with continuous tenses, but I noticed a lot of other immigrants do.
    In my native Low Saxon dialect we had an similar concepts. English grammar never held any mysteries for me; neither did its peculiar spelling. It all came quite natural to me.

  4. In Swedish:

    Jag går till puben på torsdag.
    I am going to the pub on thursday.

    Jag går till puben på torsdagar.
    I go to the pub on thursdays.

    But, for the first sentence, one would probably rather say:
    Jag ska gå till puben på thursday.
    I will go to the pub on Thursday.


    På torsdag går jag till puben.
    On Thursday I am going to the pub.

  5. The example given “I go to the bar” and all such uses of the present tense instantly signal “foreign” to the native speaker. Also, though less starkly, the use of “have you?” as opposed to “have you got?” signal non British versions.

  6. “the continuous present tense is used for current action, e.g. “I’m going to the pub on Thursday night” (a specific instance).”

    Actually, that particular example shows the present continuous being used to denote a *future* action (assuming it is not already Thursday Night when it is being said/written). The future tense (“I shall/will/I’ll go”) is used relatively rarely; in the UK, at least, we more often hear “I’m going tomorrow” or ” I go tomorrow” than “I’ll go tomorrow”. In fact, those three constructions are all used slightly differently, to my mind: “I’m going tomorrow” suggests that the ‘goer’ has already decided, well before the time of speaking, to go tomorrow; “I go tomorrow” suggests an element of inevitability, perhaps that the decision has been made on behalf of the ‘goer’; “I’ll go tomorrow” suggests that the decision to go is being made at or immediately before the time of speaking. Does anyone agree with this?

  7. Finnish, my native language, doesn’t have that distinction, but I suppose I learned it fairly easily. Sometimes I’m not exactly sure which form to use, though.

    I’m studying Japanese on my own, and it seems there are some differences when the present continuous is used, compared to English. Since there is no clear, universal logic in the use of a continuous tense, learning can sometimes be difficult.

  8. As a General American native speaker (with some linguistic degrees).

    I’d say that English doesn’t have a “simple” present tense.

    That is the tense called ‘simple present’ does not correspond to the tense with that name in most European languages. It’s much more of a gnomic and/or habitual.

    So to me “I go to the bar now” can only (just barely) work as a quasi subjunctive or hypothetical and is in no way a valid substitute for “I’m going to the bar now” or “I’ll go to the bar now”.

  9. Perhaps this is a matter of phonoaesthetics? You should write a post on the matter of phonoaesthetics and how this affects the way language is spoken. One of my favorite concepts is the idea that language is constrained by two things: the laziness of the tongue and the need for the ear to hear.

  10. The only context in which “I go to the bar now” would sound idiomatic to me would be along the lines of “I used to hang out in the pool room every night, but I go to the bar now.” And even there “but now I go to the bar” is more likely.

  11. I’m Finnish too, and I don’t think the difference of those verb forms was any problem. I can see the difference between “I go” and “I’m going” – or “I’ll go”.
    (In Finnish – (minä) menen – (minä) menen – (minä) menen :-D)

    I’m still fighting with the articles and prepositions, though 😀
    Word order is also a bit problematic, as Finnish is very flexible, in a way.
    And spelling.

  12. I think it could be used perfectly well in this situation (for habitual actions):

    What do you do when you want a pint?
    I go to the bar.

    But the ‘now’ sort of spoils it.

    To use it in place of ‘I am going to the bar’ seems like it might be a left-over from old ways of speaking. I have never heard any native speaker really saying this.

  13. I’m German, and neither Standard German nor my native dialect has a punctual/continuous distinction.

    I don’t remember particularly struggling with it myself, maybe because I was exposed to a lot of native speaker English when I was young. But most of the people I was in English class with over the years certainly did, and it was something we spent a lot of time practising.

  14. My immediate thought would be that it’s kind of a reanalysis – since “I’m going” can mean I + near future tense, or “I am going from A to B right now”, since a reanalysis occurred in English making ‘going to’ become a tense marker, it seems that this East African dialect of English has re-eliminated this distinction by using “I go” for the actual movement in the present tense/progressive aspect (though I guess I don’t know that without further data).

  15. I have no idea how much I grok English tenses, because if I use the wrong tense, the sentence usually still remains understandible and people rarely correct me for that.

  16. French students make lots of mistakes with continuous/habitual tenses, because this distinction doesn’t exist in French. And they are generally taught continuous present BEFORE simple present, so they get stuck with it. I remember an oral exam during which the student told me – when speaking about his hobbies – “I am playing football” – the answer to which could only be, “no, you are not, you are talking to me…”

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