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After a few days of pondering I came to the conclusion (which is only my opinion) that the division of the simple and progressive forms in Modern English is akin to the use-mention distinction in analytic philosophy.

The simple is used to assert something, while the progressive is used to point to this assertion.

Here's an example to partially support my hypothesis:

(I say) I refuse to go.

(The listener says) Oh, so you're refusing to go?

Here is yet another example:

(Someone says) I think guns kill people, not people.

(I say) Are you saying that we should ban bearing guns?

None of the two examples above have the "happening at the moment" reading.

Am I on the right track here? If I am, where can I read more about this?

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  • Nothing new, sorry to disappoint you. Tons of research have been written on progressive. "I say I refuse to go" is an explicit performative (thus, a self-verifying assertion) and progressive isn't allowed in such contexts.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 23 '16 at 5:26
  • @AlexB I was pretty sure my idea was not new and had been discussed dozens of times in linguistics literature. Can you recommend a book that discusses this issue in greater detail? Feb 23 '16 at 10:58
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No, I don't think you're on the right track. I agree partly with your example, but I think what is going on there has a different explanation. The listener could say

Oh, so you refuse to go?

but he could be accused of obviousness, or tautology. Because the refusal has been made. What matters more is whether my refusal to go is on-going. Did I not only refuse to go, but do I continue to refuse?

So, asking whether there is a process of refusal, which continues, using the progressive, is probably more to the point in the conversation.

I don't think you'll find anything about this use of the progressive in the literature on speech acts, but that is the best I can do for a reference. Your example, if I'm right, depends on the fact that "I refuse to go" is not simply a descriptive statement, but is actually a refusal. It can't be false, since in saying it, you have refused. An important reference on speech acts is J. L. Austin's How to do things with words.

I see you've added an example. It seems similar, since the person who says "I think guns kill people" is not trying to describe a thought he finds running through his head, but rather is performing the speech act of offering an opinion. And you can't properly deny that he has that opinion, so if you are to disagree, you have to comment on what might have prompted him to hold that opinion or on some consequence of his position.

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  • The last paragraph looks the most intriguing for me, because you seem to imply that the progressive can be used to disagree on another person's opinion. Is that what you're saying (no pun intended)? If so, how could it have a "happening at the moment" reading? All of this leads me to conclude that there is much more to the progressive than the vast majority of English grammar books have to offer. Feb 21 '16 at 18:52
  • I don't know why the progressive is used in "are you saying" when it means "are you willing to subscribe to the apparent implication of your words".
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 21 '16 at 21:08

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