The Progress of English Verb Tenses and the English Progressive

by George Lamont

copyright 2005

1. Introduction – The Significance of the Progressive
2. The Earliest Traces: Progressive Forms in Old English
3. From Signs to Significance: Progressive Tenses in Middle English
4. The Development of the Progressive in Modern English
5. The Progressive Passive Form of the 18th and 19th Centuries
6. The PDE Progressive and Regional Variation
7. Conclusion
8. Annotated Bibliography
9. Glossary

1. Introduction – The Significance of the Progressive [back to top]

The English progressive as a full tense is a relatively unique verbal development in languages. Other languages have progressive components, largely participles that act adjectivally, but rely on the present tense to describe ongoing actions, for which standard English today uses the progressive. This refinement is visible when one considers languages that rely on the simple tenses. In French, German, even Mandarin and Japanese, when one says “I eat”, it could mean “I eat (regularly)” as well as “I am eating (now)”. With the progressive, English had developed a morphological capacity to express this difference without the need for adverbial clues. The result of this development is a refined capacity for differentiation among English verbs in a way that is quite unambiguous. It has given English a regulated progressive aspect.

The progressive verb, not just the participle, has roots in Old English (OE), but the application only became frequent regionally in Northern England, Kent and Worcestershire in early Middle English (ME), then spread throughout Britain by the end of ME. It did not become grammaticalized (a required practice) until as late as the eighteenth century, and did not assume a consistent passive form until the nineteenth century. In the later twentieth century, regionally divergent uses of the progressive became well-documented, while the progressive itself has became a fully grammaticalized part of the verbal system in standard English. Its vivacity as a grammatical requirement in English and concurrent relative uniqueness testify to the productivity of English as a language that is evolving not only lexically, but syntactically as well.

1b. Focus Bar: Distinguishing Progressive Verbs from Verbals: 
In Present Day English (PDE), several types of words can end in [-ing], but they are not progressive verbs. 
A progressive verb formed with two components, and both must be present for there to be a verb: 

1) a conjugated form of the verb "to be", such as am, is, are, was, were, will be, has been, had been, etc. 
This word shows the tense of the verb phrase. 
2) A lexical verb (one that carries meaning about the action) ending in [-ing], called a present (or progressive) participle.

..........E.g. "We were running down the hill." ("were" = conjugated "to be"; "running" = lexical verb ending in [-ing].

You can test whether "running" is a verb by attempting to place a degree adverb (very, quite, rather) before it. 
It should not work: "We were *very running down the hill." (X)

Four common [-ing] forms are possibly confused with progressive verbs:
1. attributive adjectival participle - this is a word ending in [-ing] that is used before nouns to describe nouns. 
..........E.g. "This is an exciting film." You can tell this is an adjective by placing a degree adverb before it:
................."This is a very exciting film."
2. post-positive adjective (Denison calls this “appositive” 372) - this word is still an adjective, but one that follows nouns. 
..........E.g. "There’s George, running away." With no form of "to be" between "George" and "running", this an adjective, 
...................not a verb.
3. predicative adjectival use - this one is deceiving because it appears to have the form "to be" + a verb [-ing]. 
However, placing a degree adverb before the present participle reveals that "exciting" is an adjective:
..........E.g. "This film is exciting."
................."This film is very exciting."
4. gerunds - these are verb-words ending in [-ing] and have the functions of nouns, and are detectable in this way:
..........E.g. Swimming is fun. ("swimming" is the subject of the verb "is")
.................I like swimming. (swimming is the direct object of the verb "like")
.................We always talk about swimming. ("swimming" is the object of the preposition "about").

2. The Earliest Traces: Progressive Forms in Old English [back to top]

David Crystal (224-5) briefly claims that the progressive arose towards the end of ME, more in northern texts. However, Pyles and Algeo claim that progressive verbs “occur occasionally in Old English” (205), and others like Denison, Nickel and Traugott attest specific usages of the Old English form. The OE form was a combination of the verbs beon and wesan (which became the verb “to be” in Present-Day English), and a lexical verb ending in [-ende] as in “feohtende”, the OE counterpart to PDE [-ing] as in “fighting”. Whether this form grew out of native processes or Latin influence is an issue that remains unsettled; however, the evidence for both will be briefly enumerated below. Either way, of all the early Germanic languages, OE had the most developed progressive system (Mossé, Traugott 90).

Non-Progressive Forms in OE that Looked like Progressives
Not all [–end(e)] forms were even progressive at all; some were agentive (glossary) (Denison, English 372). In the OE poem “Dream of the Rood”, line 17b, there is the line: “gimmas hęfdon / bewrigen weoršlice  wealdendes treo” (gems had covered the lord’s tree worthily). The word wealdendes functionally means “the wielder”, not “wielding”. Many [–ende] forms were merely adjectival instead of verbal, and these are detectable if one can insert an adverb. For example, in King Alfred’s West-Saxon version of Gregory’s “Pastoral Care” 299.9, it reads “hu gewitende ša šing sint še hie gietsiaš” (how transitory those things are that they desire). The adverb “hu” (how) before "gewitende" (transitory) shows that this is adjectival, not verbal.

Progressive Verbs in OE
However, progressive-tense forms did occur in OE, and are detected by the presence of verbal complements. Perhaps the best examples comes from Beowulf, which has a clearly native origin, rather than a Latin one. In lines 159-161a, it reads “ac se ęglęca ehtende węs, deorc deažscua, duguže and geogože, seomade ond syrede” (but the monster, a dark death-shadow, was persecuting old and young retainers; he remained and hovered in ambush). The presence of a direct object here (old and young retainers) proves that “ehtende” is a verb in one of the very earliest forms of the progressive aspect in English.

In fact, the OE progressive verb was developed sufficiently to be attestable in several combinations of tense. There were past and present forms, as well as compound formations with “shall”, “will” and “may” with forms of “be”, even a possible imperative form  (Denison 383, Visser). Rissanen generally claims that “the combination of be and the present participle … was not necessarily aspectual” (216). However, in his book English Historical Syntax, Denison provides attestations that demonstrate syntactic proof of some verbal-aspectual incidence. Traugott also suggests that such evidence opens up the possibility that the progressive verb “may have been a genuine OE construction” (90).

The Likelihood of Latin Influence
Even with a few examples of what appear to be truly progressive verbs in native texts, many scholars generally advocate that the need to translate Latin gave rise to so-called English progressive verbs. Baugh and Cable caution that such examples of true progressive verbs are rare: “In Old English such expressions as he węs lęrende (he was teaching) are occasionally found, but usually in translations from Latin” (287). Additionally, while Traugott concedes that examples of the progressive in Beowulf, Orosius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are convincing, she still attributes “much of its expansion of its use to Latin models (90).

Work by Wulfing supports this (Denison English 382), suggesting that the progressive verb was often used to approximate Latin deponent verbs, which look passive in form, but are active in meaning. Denison points to a passage in Bede, in which Bede must translate the Latin verb “consecutus est”, which looks like “was followed” but means “followed”. Bede’s rendering as “węs fylgende” may have been a way to make the translation look like the Latin (“was” + a lexical verb) and translate like the Latin (active voice), too. To support this viewpoint, both Denison (397) and Traugott (90) refer to Fernand Mossé, who claims that any appearance of a progressive in a Germanic language is the result of attempts to translate Greek or Latin forms, such as middle voice/deponent verbs, present participles, or “esse” + future or present participles.

3. From Signs to Significance: Progressive Tenses in Middle English [back to top]

The few OE attestations of the progressive given by Denison are often late in OE. In fact, most of his examples of the early progressive occur in Middle English. The progressive was even rare in ME. Pyles and Algeo claim it was rare before the fifteenth century (205), while Baugh and Cable claim it was rare even before the sixteenth century, and maintain that the ME progressive developed somewhat separately from OE incidences (287). Mustanoja’s dialectical survey of the ME progressive suggests that it was only common in early ME in the north, Kent, and Worcestershire. By the fourteenth century, it was current in the central and east midlands. By the fifteenth century, it had reached the remaining parts of the country (Denison English 383).

Existing Progressive Forms Survive and Thrive
Certainly, the adjectival present participle was still strong in ME. For example, Chaucer writes, “Me wolde thynke how that the worthieste Of knyghthod Were Sittyngest for hire” (Denison 373) (to me, it would seem that the worthiest of knighthood would be most-suitable for her). The superlative adjective ending [–est] here clearly shows that “sittyngest” is an adjective, not a verb or true participle. In addition, there was a growing number of clear progressive verbs in ME, spanning all three times (past, present, and future). In Wycliffe’s Sermons I. 42.2, Denison (English 375) finds a clear example of a transitivephrasal verb with a direct object, cast in the past-progressive: “že story telluž how Iesu was casting owt a feend of a man”.  In Malory’s Works 100.7L, Denison attests another transitive verb in the future progressive “but allwey he woll be shotynge, or castynge dartes, and glad for to se batayles”.

New Progressive Forms in ME
Three important new progressive forms appear in ME. First is the infinitive progressive “to be doing”, which was born as early as 1230, but said to be a ME development (Denison 384). Second, the perfect progressive (“has been doing”) is also first attested in ME: “if ži parischen In sin lang has ligand bene” (if your parishioner has long been lying in sin) (Denison 384). Third, the modal perfect progressive occurs for the first time in a1425 Mandev: “for žai trowed žat he schuld hafe bene hingand apon žat crosse as long as žat crosse might last” (for they believed that he should have been hanging upon that cross as long as that cross might last). Strang claims that such a combination remained rare until the nineteenth century (“Aspects” 440), but Denison claims that the form was possible even in OE (“Syntax” 145). Rissanen claims that the pluperfect progressive existed in ME, but does not attest it (217).

The Loss of [-ung] and the Standardization of [-ing]
In OE, the ending [-ung] marked verbal nouns or gerunds (glossary), an ending that began to vary with [-yng] and later [-ing]. By ME, the OE [–ung] and –ing forms coalesced, and then absorbed the OE [–ende] to create the [–yng] / [-ing] progressive forms, with the [-yng] being later dropped. It is at this juncture in ME that the progressive verb, progressive participle, and gerund fell under the umbrella of the same [-ing] ending and were no longer morphologically distinguishable.

4. The Development of the Progressive in Modern English [back to top]

The period of Modern English (ModE) is so broad that the progressive in late ModE is quite different, from that in early ModE, with some PDE forms not becoming widely practised until late ModE. Although Shakespeare does use the progressive in the eModE period, he does so rarely. Traugott reports that its frequency does increase over time even within the Shakespeare corpus; however, even in Henry VIII, there are only “a dozen or so examples” (Traugott 143).

Cross-over between the simple and the progressive
One reason is likely that the simple and progressive uses had not finished dividing semantically. In eModE, the simple present still often accounted for what PDE speakers would make progressive, and this is evident even in Shakespeare when Ophelia asks, “What do you read, my lord?” (Hamlet II.ii) (Rissanen 221), even when a PDE speaker would ask, “What are you reading, my lord?” In turn, the progressive covered habitual actions now covered by the habitual simple present. Rissanen (221) cites Addison’s Spectator 7: “She is always seeing Apparitions, and hearing Death-Watches,” rather than “She always sees Apparitions, and hears Death-Watches.”

This confusion between uses does not fully disappear until the beginning of the twentieth century, although it was in strong decline in the second half of the eighteenth century. From Keats come two late examples of such cross-over. In the first case, Keats uses the simple when the progressive would be necessary today: “Now I will return to Fanny – it rains.” (1818, Letters 75 p. 170 (3 Jul)). In the second example, Keats casts a stative verb in the progressive when today it would be cast in the simple past: “What I should have lent you ere this if I could have got it, was belonging to poor Tom” (1819 Letters 110, p. 277 (Feb)). In addition to these, Denison attests several other late examples of confusion, including Maugham in 1919 (“Syntax” 143-4).

New Progressive Forms in Modern English
Four major new forms of the progressive developed over considerable time in ModE. First, the progressive of “be” as in “to be being …” is attested in OE and ME, but is not considered really progressive. It is translated as a simple tense, either present or past until ModE. The development of the formation “I was being brave” would later figure into the fourth development of the ModE period. Second, stative verbs begin to take on progressive forms. Stative verbs generally resist progressive uses; however, certain situations can generate a progressive form of a generally stative verb. Consider, for example, that standard PDE speakers generally don’t say, “*John is being a boy”. They are merely expressing a copulative relationship between “John” and “boy”; the relationship is not something John can do or not do. However, consider the sentence “John is being a man”. If the speaker is merely distinguishing John from a woman, the form “is being” would be inappropriate. However, when the predicative referent (a man) takes on additional lexical meaning to communicate that John is conducting himself in a way that the speaker considers appropriate to a man, the verb “to be” becomes an activity in which John can either voluntarily engage, or refuse to undertake.

This form arose in the early nineteenth century, first attested by the OED in the 1803 Naval Chronicles X. 258: “The tars are wishing for a lick, as they call it, at the Spanish galleons.” Keats, whose letters contain many of the first uses of different progressive forms, also uses the progressive form of the otherwise stative “be” with a complementary adjective: “You will be glad to hear … how diligent I have been, and am being” (1819, Letters 137 p. 357 (11 Jul)) (Denison “Syntax” 146). In Meredith’s 1871 Harry Richmond, the capacity for nouns to complement (follow) the progressive of “be” is evident: “One who studies is not being a fool.” A similar process occurred with the verb “to have”, in which the sentence “We are having lunch” became possible. This is attested in 1808, with a possible attestation in 1787 (Denison “Syntax” 149).

Third, it was during eModE that the progressive took on its present field of future time, and is attested in Shakespeare: “Tomorrow … Don Alphonso With other Gentlemen of good esteeme, Are journeying to salute the Emperor” (Two Gentlemen of Verona, I.iii) (Rissanen 223). The fourth newly developed form in ModE is the true passive form; however, it developed late and will be discussed separately.

Grammaticalization of the Progressive in Early Modern English
The Early Modern English period is particularly important to the development of the progressive, because it was at this time that the progressive began to be grammaticalized (required), and no longer merely an expression of style. Rissanen (210) declares that it was in early Modern English that the be + ing progressive forms were solidified. Barbara Strang asserts that “the rules for use of the progressive had already been established … in the seventeenth century” (“Aspects” 429), although even in the 1800s, Denison notes many examples that do not conform to the present practice.

Nonetheless, a major trend grammaticalizing the progressive is visible in the eighteenth century. Strang explains that, during the first half of the eighteenth century, the progressive verb occurred mainly in subordinate clauses; however, while use of the progressive grew in general in the second half of the century, it grew most rapidly in main clauses. The general growth continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but even greater was this growth in main clauses as the progressive gained grammatical consistency (Strang “Aspects” 441-2, Denison "Syntax" 144). Denison, referring to Dennis and Arnaud, estimates that the use of the progressive has roughly doubled every century since 1500, with a slow-down in the 18th century, but a “three-fold increase” in the 1900s (“Syntax” 143). It is likely then, from the rates of increase of use of the progressive, as well as the pattern of decline of confusion between the simple and progressive tenses, that grammaticalization of the progressive verb was largely complete by the end of the nineteenth century, with some residual effects of confusion running over into the very early twentieth century.

5. The Progressive Passive Form of the 18th and 19th Centuries [back to top]

One reason why it is relatively accurate to consider the progressive largely grammaticalized by the end of the nineteenth centuries, is that a more specific development of the progressive was largely grammaticalized by about the same time: the progressive passive. A fairly complicated verbal formation, the passive progressive is formed from three components: 1. a conjugated form of “to be” as the main verb, 2. the present participle of “to be” to demonstrate ongoing activity, and 3. the past participle of the lexical verb to communicate the specific action. The result is a sentence such as “He was still being treated for his injuries at six o’clock.” Denison believes that the development of the progressive of the verb “to be” (as in “I was being erratic”) early in ModE was instrumental in paving the way for the development of the passive (“Syntax” 147).

Expressing Progressive-Passive Actions before Progressive-Passive Verbs
Part of the reason why the progressive passive was so late in developing is related to the development of the English passive in general. Old English had no syntactic or morphological passive. As a result, the sentence “The man killed” in Old English could potential mean the active “the man killed (someone)”, or the passive “the man (was) killed”. Context usually informed the reader. ME often relied on similar extrapolations, which Visser calls “passival” and others call “middle voice”: passive in meaning, but lacking explicit passive form. Denison cites Cursor, a1400: “that there are deeds doing anew”, when what is meant is “that there are deeds being done anew” (English 390).

By eModE, the simple past passive, as in “the meal was eaten”, was in use, as was the progressive active, as in “the meal was eating”, which was active in form but passive in meaning (Barber 188). Before the passive form took firm root, ongoing past actions in the passive voice, such as “he was being treated” were often expressed in the simple passive, as Pepys does in his 1662 Diary III: “I went to see if any play was acted”. Even Dickens, as late as 1839, still uses the non-progressive form in Nicholas Nickleby: “he found that the coach had sunk greatly on one side, though it was still dragged forward by the horses”.  The alternative was to use the active progressive, but imply the passive meaning. For example, Jane Austen does so in her letters, “Our Garden is putting in order” rather than “is being put in order”.

Some vocal language critics of the time even resisted the introduction of passive-progressive forms. In the later 1800s, American Richard Grant White denounced the passive progressive form, such as “the house is being built”, preferring expressions in the middle voice, such as “the house is building” (Finegan 386). Even in PDE, this “passival” form of the passive progressive has survived. Denison mentions an edition of The Guardian in 1983, in which it is written that “more than a dozen television cameras were setting up (instead of being set up).” Today, now that there is a fully developed progressive passive, grammarians refer to this as “middle voice”, and use this term to describe sentences like “this shirt washes easily”. It is active in form and passive in meaning, and is limited to inanimate subjects (Denison English 390).

The True Progressive-Passive Verb
The passive progressive, as in “It was being done”, is not attested until 1754, and not with frequency until the end of the eighteenth century (Denison “Syntax” 150, Pyles and Algeo 205). Charles Barber states in his book Early Modern English, that there is no data attesting the progressive-passive verb combination in eModE, and agrees with Denison’s assessment of the inception of the English progressive passive in the eighteenth century (188).

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, there were forces at work attempting to differentiate the active from passive forms. Samuel Johnson in 1755 pointed out that the “a-doing” form was understood to distinguish the active from the passive form: “The grammar is now printing … This is, in my opinion, a vitious expression, probably corrupted from a phrase more pure, but now somewhat obsolete: The book is a printing” (Rissanen 218). Robert Southey uses the current passive form in 1795: “like a fellow whose uttermost upper grinder is being torn out by the roots” (Traugott 178). As this progressive-passive form specifically became widely practised by the end of the nineteenth century, it helped solidify the grammaticality of the progressive in general.

6. The PDE Progressive and Regional Variation [back to top]

Despite the widespread grammaticalization of the progressive verbs by the twentieth century, there have been regional variations on the use of progressive that have survived, and some that are even in a state of growth.

British Variation of the Progressive
Graddol, Leith and Swain briefly mention regional variation in northern Britain, in which the past participle replaces the present participle, an example of which is “She was sat there” rather than “She was sitting there”. This is recorded is both spoken and written forms. They also cite an increased frequency among the English of Ireland, Scotland, India, Singapore, East and West Africa to cast stative verbs in the progressive, where the simple would be used in standard English. For example, such speakers might say “I was knowing it” rather than “I knew it” (235).

African-American Divergent Use of the Progressive
Salikoko Mufwene explains in his article “African-American English” (AAE) that AAE speakers often drop the be-auxiliary verb, resulting is sentences such as “She doin’ good” and questions like “How you doin’?”, the latter having made its way into wider, popular use (302). In AAE, there is also the tendency to cast verbs that would normally be stative in the progressive (Mufwene 305), as in “He livin’ with his uncle” rather than “He lives with his uncle.” In African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), the conjugated form of the be-auxiliary, instead of being dropped, is often levelled to the base form “be” (Mufwene 303). In standard English, speakers form the progressive by conjugating “be” thus: “I am eating, you are eating, he is eating, they are eating.” The levelling of “be” in AAVE has resulted in the following: “I be eating, you be eating, he be eating, etc.”

These divergent uses of the progressive are not on the decline. On the contrary, Mufwene cites Bailey and Maynor’s 1987 study,  showing that the use of be + lexical verb-ing instead of conjugated “be” or the simple tense is three times more frequent among African-American teens than among African-Americans in their 70s. AAE and AAVE are diverging from standard English in the use of the progressive, not merging with it. As a result, while the grammaticalization of the English progressive is considered complete, there remain pockets of variance and divergence both syntactically, in the case of the “passival” use, and regionally, as described above.

“Should have been being built” – the Theoretical and Literary Tenses
The combination of perfect and progressive aspects together with passive voice has lead to some very heavily compounded English tenses that are grammatical, but unwieldy. A rich example is found in Marsh’s 1860 Lectures, in which he objects to combinations such as “… the coat would have been being made yesterday…” (Denison “Syntax” 157). However, such huge compounds are heavily attested by Denison in the beginning of the twentieth century. Galsworthy wrote in the 1915 Freelands that “She doesn’t trust us. I shall always be being pushed away from him by her.” Denison also cites a 1993 example in the Daily Telegraph: “But he added: ‘… They might have all been being used at the time’” (“Syntax” 158). Several such attestations demonstrate that they may appear in literary contexts more often than speech, but nevertheless constitute a very recent development in English. It is a sign that, as far as the English progressive goes, the lava has stopped flowing, but it has not yet cooled.

The result is that English has accumulated a whopping seventeen progressive verb tenses, considering time (past, present, and future), aspect (progressive and perfect-progressive), voice (active and passive), as well as mood (imperative). There are more to be counted if the subjunctive were included.

Conclusion [back to top]

The English progressive verb has an extensive history that spans from some of the earliest Old English texts to the most current PDE data. It has undergone several stages of development, with only a toehold at best in Old English use. It experienced a strong north-to-south spread through Britain during Middle English. In early Modern English was the advent of progressive “be” and stative verbs, as well as the use of the progressive to indicate future. By late Modern English, the passive progressive had become consistent while the widespread grammaticalization of the progressive verb largely finished up. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, highly complex tenses have developed, regional variations have survived, and others have begun to evolve away from standard use. It is a process that has surprisingly taken over a thousand years, and still appears unfinished. Even so, as volatile as the English progressive appears, and as volatile as it makes the English language appear, the evolution of the progressive verb in English is a relatively unique and rather impressive accomplishment. It is proof that English is alive, and growing, and changing. And with such growth, comes progress.

Annotated Bibliography
[back to top]

PDE Descriptive Grammars

Brinton, Laurel J. The Structure of Modern English. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2000.  – Brinton’s is a good text for solid descriptive-grammatical data before one plunges into Quirk et al, which is a very extensive text.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartnik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London and New York: Longman, 1985. -- With an extremely thorough index, this text is best to consult for an explanation of the current forms of the progressive.

Histories of the English Language

Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993. -- Baugh and Cable discuss the influence of Latin translation on Old English and the possible effect of this on the development of the OE progressive.

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1995. – Crystal only touches on the progressive specifically, but his discussion of the overworked simple-present tense is elucidating.

Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. – This text only mentions the development of the progressive briefly, but its brief commentary is a good introduction.

Strang, Barbara. A History of English. London: Methuen, 1970. – Strang’s attention to the history of the grammaticalization of the progressive is quite specific, and is an indispensable source for anyone looking into grammaticalization.

Detailed Studies on English Syntax

Denison, David. English Historical Syntax: Verbal Constructions. London and New York: Longman, 1993. -- Denison writes 40 pages on the progressive in English, has generous attestation, and discusses all notable scholarship on the subject. This text assumes substantial knowledge in linguistic terms, but is possibly the most complete text on the subject. It often contains more extensive discussions of similar issues Denison raises in his “Syntax” article in CHEL IV.

--- “Syntax.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol 4. Ed. Suzanne Romaine, Gen Ed. Richard Hogg. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1992. – Denison’s article here in CHEL is in many ways the abridged version of his book. It is actually quite useful for comparison with the book, and it is a good preview of the even greater detail in his book.

Rissanen, Matti. “Syntax.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol 3. Ed. Roger Lass, Gen Ed. Richard Hogg. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1992. -- Rissanen shines with attestations of Early Modern uses of the simple tenses where we would today use progressives. This may be the best and most manageable text in which to search for Early Modern data.

Traugott, Elizabeth. The History of English Syntax. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. --Concise and still fairly well connected to larger treatments of the progressive, Traugott’s  discussion of the progressive is a good place to start looking at the history. It touches on most of the issues and often points to larger, if older, treatments.

Visser, Frederic. An Historical Syntax of the English Language. Leiden: Brill, 1970. -- Visser’s discussion is central in the field, and is a reference point from which most authors on the subject proceed with their examinations. Visser is quite technical and his terminology is heavily linguistic.

Specific Studies of the English Progressive

Brinton, Laurel J. The Development of English Aspectual Systems: Aspectualizers and Post-Verbal Particles. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1988. – In this text, Brinton delves into more specific discussion of the morphological issues of verbal aspect. It assumes greater linguistic knowledge than her book Structure etc.

Strang, Barbara. “Some Aspects of the history of the be + ing construction. Language Form and Linguistic Variation: Papers Dedicated to Angus McIntosh. Ed. J. Anderson. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1982, p. 427-74. – Specific commentary relating to the grammaticalization of the progressive in Strang’s article provides the basis for several other authors’ statements on this aspect of the progressive.

Regional Variation

Holm, John. “English in the Caribbean.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol 5. Ed. Robert Burchfield, Gen Ed. Richard Hogg. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1992. – Holm’s discussion of English Creoles is a good companion to Mufwene’s discussion of AAE.

Graddol David, Dick Leith and Joan Swann. English: History, Diversity, and Change. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. – The authors rely on Baugh and Cable for their historical information, but this text mentions regional variation of the progressive in the UK.

Mufwene, Salikoko. “African-American English.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol 6. Ed. John Algeo, Gen Ed. Richard Hogg. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1992. – Although Salikoko mixes his discussion of progressive aspect with perfect aspect in AAE, pages 302-5 and 320 focus quite closely on use of the progressive in AAE and AAVE.

General Background Reading

Barber, Charles. Early Modern English. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P, 1997. – Very brief discussion of the eModE progressive can be found on page 188.

Finegan, Edward. “Usage.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol 6. Ed. John Algeo, Gen Ed. Richard Hogg. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1992. – Finegan discusses several language critics who resisted the passive progressive, and gives examples of their criticism.

Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. 2nd ed. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 1968. -- This text largely rejects the idea of a verbal progressive in Old English, but it is one of the best Old English grammars on the subject.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Online at <>. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1989.


Glossary [back to top]

adjectival - acting like an adjective, describing or modifying a noun: "big truck".

aspect - information communicating the completeness of a verb's action.
- "Simple" aspect usually suggests a habit: "I eat lunch every day."
- "Progressive" aspect suggests an ongoing action at the time of reference: "I am eating now." "She was having dinner when I called." "He will be working at the store when I arrive."
- "Perfect" aspect refers to something complete at the time of reference: "I have finished my homework (some time before now)." "I had already finished my homework when you called."
- "Perfect Progressive" aspect describes how long an action has already taken place before the time of reference: "I have been waiting for you for three hours (already before now)." "I had already been working for 16 hours when the boss asked me to stay for the next shift."

complement - a component of a sentence required to complete the meaning, usually associated with the main verb. Ex. “I broke.” Broke what? “I broke the lamp.” Most types of verbs require some necessary component, or “complement”, to complete its meaning. In this case, it requires a direct object (the lamp).

conjugated - verbs that show tense and number. For example "be" is the base verb, but conjugated verbs include I am, you are, he is, we are, I have, he has.

copulative - a relationship between a noun and another noun connected by forms of "be", which works like an "equals sign" (=). John is a boy (John = a boy).

lexical - a word that carries actual meaning. In the verb phrase "is thinking", "is" shows tense and number, and is therefore conjugated. However, the participle "thinking" still carries the specific meaning about what the subject is doing: "Anna is thinking about her job."

morphological - the matter of attaching endings to words to change their meaning. English has a few of these: [-s] changes a singular to a plural; [-'s] changes a noun to a possessive; [-ed] changes a verb to the past tense (in most cases); [-ing] changes a verb to the progressive aspect. English does not have, and has never had, an ending to show that a verb is passive. Instead, English relies on syntax to show the passive, whereas languages like Latin and Greek used morphology as well as syntax to show passivity (depending on the verb tense).

modal - modal verbal constructions include words like would, should, and could, and often show potential or create subjunctive conditions (scenarios of non-fact). E.g. "He would go to the movie, but he has no money, so he won't." Modals can be used in very complex verb phrases: "I wouldhave been being checked in if you hadn't made me wait for you at the airport."

mood - another element of analysing verbs. Mood shows factuality. Indicative “I am a man” indicates something believed by the speaker to be true. Subjunctive “If I were a man,…” describes a hypothetical situation, often found in conditional (“if”) sentences. Imperative “Be a man!” is a command (“imperare” in Latin means “to order”).

participles - these are forms of verbs that are used to show aspect. The past (or perfect) participle is used to form the perfect tenses (I have eaten, I had already left). The present (or progressive) participle is used to show ongoing action ( I am working at home now). When separated from the conjugated form of "to be" in verb phrases, participles can act like adjectives (The broken window let the cold air in; the screaming eagles terrified their prey). Participles that are used adjectivally long enough become full adjectives, and can take degree adverbs like very, quite, and rather (He is quite depressed; that movie was very boring).

passive - this is called "voice" and varies between active and passive.
- Active: In the active voice, the lexical (real) subject is also the syntactic subject (subject as word order would dictate): "Beowulf killed Grendel."
- Passive: In the passive voice, the real object (Grendel), moves to the front of the sentence and becomes the syntactic subject (because of word order), but remains the lexical object (because we know the Grendel is the one who gets killed). We get this sentence in the passive voice: "Grendel was killed by Beowulf.
- Middle: This is extremely rare, but it still does occur. Only used on inanimate or at least non-human subjects, it looks active in form but is passive in meaning, as in "The coat washes easily", when we really mean "We wash this coat easily".

phrasal - a transitive verb that must take a particle (He picked his daughter up / he picked up his daughter).

pluperfect - another term for the past-perfect tense, as in "I had already completed the project before my boss even asked me how it was going."

progressive - ongoing action signified by [-ing]. As a verb it must be formed with a conjugated form of "to be" and a present participle (We are leaving now).

stative - verbs that describe non-changing "actions" (states of being), including "be", "have", "know" and "love". Generally, these are not willful activities, and do not take the progressive form. One who "knows" something simply knows it; he/she cannot deliberately stop knowing something. In certain cases, the verbs become willful actions, such as "to have lunch", and therefore it is possible to say, "I am having lunch now." The speaker could indeed stop having lunch at any time.

syntactic – Syntax is the matter of word arrangement. A "syntactic passive" would mean that the order and number of words would show us the a verb was passive, and indeed, this is how the passive is rendered in English. For example, the syntax (word order and arrangement) of the active sentence "the man killed his enemy" is different from the passive sentence "the enemy was killed by the man." However, both sentences have the same meaning. Old English did not form the passive with syntax; in other words, Old English generally did not have sentences like "the enemy was killed" - only "the enemy killed". The reader needed to learn from context whether the sentence was passive, although most sentences were active.

transitive - verbs that must take a direct object of their action. Note that "transitive phrasal" is a type of transitive verb that requires a particle (a preposition-like word that acts like an adverb).

monotransitive – takes a direct object (“mono” = Greek “one” – one type of object). Ex. “I broke the glass.”
monotransitive phrasal – takes a direct object as well as a particle. Ex. “I broke down the boxes / I broke the boxes down.”
monotransitive phrasal-prepositional – takes a direct object, a moveable particle, and a prepositional phrase. Ex. “I set up my friend with my sister’s friend / I set my friend up with my sister’s friend.”
ditransitive – takes two (“di”) types of objects: direct and indirect. Ex. “I gave a present to my mother.” Direct objects are almost always objects; indirect objects are almost always people (or animals) that receive the direct object.
complex-transitive – takes a direct object and an object complement (something that is equal to the direct object). Ex. “I consider him my friend.” This can be broken down into two sentence complements, the second connected by a form of “to be”: “I consider him. He is my friend.”