In French if I write the sentence

Je mange le déjeuner

it would/could be the same as if I am saying I am eating lunch. What is going on in French goes on in a number of the other Romance languages.

How is it that it came to be in the English language that "I eat lunch" cannot represent something I am doing right now?

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    I find this question off-topic as it's about a specific language. English Language & Usage would be a better fit. – user101 Sep 14 '11 at 5:17
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    I disagree; see this meta thread: meta.linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/24/… I think we should not (vote to) close this question until consensus is reached there on how to treat such cases. – Aaron Sep 14 '11 at 5:30
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    I disagree. Questions about specific languages generally should not be off topic. If anything only English, French, German, and Japanese have a Language & Usage site at all, and only English has one not in Beta, the others could well be closed by Stack Exchange if the Betas are not successful. – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 8:32
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    I don’t even agree that this question is necessarily language-specific. Granted, it only asks about the English language, but the answer may be a general phenomenon that is applicable to other languages. – Timwi Sep 16 '11 at 11:00
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    Many language-specific questions are best answered in the context of typology and theory and I would hate to see those questions go to a language-specific Stack Exchange where that insight would not exist. Furthermore, most general linguistics journals will have plenty of articles that are language-specific. They aren't off-topic for those journals. – James Tauber Sep 18 '11 at 16:22

Steven's second paragraph, about blocking, is not quite correct. Spanish for example has both a simple present (él come) and a present progressive formed from a copula + gerund (él está comiendo), however the former is the default expression of a punctual action (at least in conservative dialects). I have heard it claimed that in some innovative dialects the gerund is in the process of replacing the simple present.

As a matter of history, Old English lacked a copula + gerund form, and developed it over the course of its development into Middle and Early Modern English. This development was not uniform. One of the last constructions to gain a morphologically regular progressive form was the passive. In earlier English, the sentence in (1) was ungrammatical, with (2) being the preferred way of expressing the meaning:

  1. The trunks were being carried down.
  2. The trunks were carrying down.

That example was taken from this Language Log post, which also has an illustration that people were objecting to this innovation as late as the latter half of the 19th century (the use of the progressive in other contexts was well-established by this time).


Perhaps you might get a more pointed response in the English Language and Usage StackExchange.

As for the question itself, my first instinct would be that the potential continuous meaning of the simple present I eat lunch is blocked by the existence of an unambiguously progressive form I am eating lunch. We see this pattern all the time in semantic/morphological blocking.

Other Germanic languages, to my very limited knowledge, do not have a similar progressive verb form, so I would reckon that it is a new development in English. Moreover, the auxiliary + deadjectival verb nature of the progressive strongly points to it being a derivative form. It's probable that somewhere along the line, people decided that is X-ing was a good way to specifically refer to a continuous action, and the emergence of the new construction pushed out one of the original meanings of the simple present.

My proposal is not necessarily true, though. It could easily be the case that the progressive forms emerged in response to the lack of the continuous meaning. That's a question an English historian might be better able to answer than me.

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    New development? Why is it so hard to suppose that two major features of English — do-support and the present progressive — didn't manage to make their way into the language from the Celtic languages (which have the same features and were spoken by people who already lived on the island)? – Stan Rogers Sep 14 '11 at 13:38
  • @Stan, There is zero evidence of do-support in English before (at least) 1200, despite the fact that English had been spoken in the British Isles for ~600 years before that. – Aaron Sep 16 '11 at 7:32
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    @Aaron: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence---in any science. Odd, though, that do-support should arise independently in Celtic and English in a contact area (where English, as a distinct Germanic grammar, has been broken by the second-wave Danes and Norman influence). Don't confuse the signifier and the signified; the language on the ground is not the language on the parchment. – Stan Rogers Sep 16 '11 at 19:53

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