PRESENT CONTINUOUS FORM OF THE VERB:
(So I don’t get ahead of myself, I’ll come back to “is refusing”.)
“It rains a lot in Scotland.” This is another ‘timeless’ fact. BUT – if right now I walk to the window and see water falling from the sky, I don’t say, “It rains” – I say, “It’s raining(It is raining.)”
“I brush my teeth every day.”
But let someone call to me through the bathroom door, “How long will you be?” I don’t reply, “I brush my teeth” but “I’m (just) brushing my teeth (I am brushing…)”.
This is an action, an event happening right NOW, yet instead of just the simple present tense, I have responded using the present continuous.
What is different from the present tense use is that
1. these sentences refer to specific instances of the ‘timeless facts’ of ‘I brush every day’ etc.
2. With the Present tense form, ‘time’ was irrelevant. But when a specific instance is happening, I cannot conceive of this as being ‘timeless’ since every specific action takes time to perform, even if just a matter of seconds. It does not rain for a single instant -(call it, ‘NOW’) – but occurs within a band of time stretching either side of NOW, from some point in time before NOW, and extending after NOW. Brushing my teeth takes time, a few minutes.
(Compare that with the sentence : “I own a car.” I cannot use the form “I am owning a car” because ‘to own’ is not an action, and so not an ongoing action that takes time to complete– I either own a car, or I don’t; I 'have owned', or I 'will own'.)
AND…there’s something more:
In Wuken’s original thread, he gave the sentences:
(a) He stays with us (when he is in England).
(b) He is staying with us (while he is in England).
In (a), I am presenting this as a timeless fact. How long he stays at my house each time he visits England is not relevant when I give you this information. It is black and white : not at a hotel, but at my house, ‘with us’.
In (b) I refer to a specific instance that is ongoing as I speak, and has a beginning (the day he arrived) and will have an end (when he leaves). That is, it is for a limited period of time – I see this as a temporary situation.
(I could say to someone: “Jack is staying with us at that moment. He always stays with us when he comes to England.”)
But let’s look at this idea of ‘limited period of time’ and ‘temporary situation’:
(a) I live in London.
(b) I am living in London.
These types of sentences, and ‘when would you use one or the other’ often occur in threads.
Sentence (a) is, yes, a fact, but also we can imagine a beginning (either because I was born there, or because I moved there) and an end, if I should move…or when I die. But as the speaker, I do not consider that ‘how long’ is relevant, any idea of ‘time’ is irrelevant –it’s merely that, ‘I don’t live in New York’ , simply, ‘I live in London’. So why would I change to the ‘am living’ form of the verb?
Because I see it as being a temporary situation – I see it as being ‘for a limited period of time.’ That is the crucial difference.
So – I might say to someone:
“I live in London. I’ve just sold my pokey flat, so I’m living with my aunt at the moment while I look around for a house to buy.”
‘live in London’ is ‘timeless’ – I view this as a constant part of my life – but I view ‘living with my aunt’ as temporary, and that is my perspective and so determines my choice of verb form, the present continuous form.
So – again, I use the Present Continuous form when:
1. I am talking about a specific instance of an action or event that is happening as I speak. NOW
2. I see this as temporary, or happening for a limited period of time, and where I can conceive of a definite beginning, and a definite end. ‘It is raining :it was dry earlier, so it began sometime after that, and my experience tells me it will end in minutes if it is a shower, or after an hour, or longer…but it will end.
This ‘limited period of time’ may be seconds, as in “He is sneezing/winking at me’, or years – “He is studying medicine at John Hopkins. It’s a six year course.”
“I usually drive the car to work, but this week I am taking the bus.”
‘drive’ is the present tense form – a statement of fact about a constant routine of mine.
‘am taking’ – ongoing action, for a limited time, with a beginning (start of the week) and an end (end of the week).
Now –on websites where they explain the uses of the verb forms, you will see something like, , ‘we use the Present Continous to refer to actions which are incomplete’. But of course they are incomplete! – that is not the essential reason why we use this form of the verb. The action is happening and ongoing as I speak, starting before, and going on after the moment NOW as I speak. The action has to be incomplete, because as soon as it is ‘complete’ I cant’ use a present tense form – I have to speak in one of the past tense forms! I can only say “I am brushing my teeth" while I am doing so, so at that moment, the action is obviously incomplete. As soon as I’ve finished, I would refer to this event as, “I have brushed my teeth.”
Again, you will see ‘we use the Present Continous to refer to fixed plans we have made for a future event.’ As in:
“We are going to Hawaii next year.”
This begs the question, so why not just use the Future tense?
Right at the beginning of this thread, I referred to how, I, the speaker, locate events in time. I locate events in the (Simple) Past when they are before NOW, over and done with - they are no longer a part of my current/present reality. I locate events in the Future when they will occur after NOW….and…and I see them as quite separate, remote, outside my current/present reality. Let me explain that with some sentences:
“I see the Jones’s are off to Hawaii for a couple of weeks. Oh, well, one day, we’ll go (we will go) to Hawaii too.”
Can you see that for the speaker, this ‘event’, this hoped for holiday in Hawaii is seen as remote, not part of his current reality, floating way off in future space somewhere.
BUT – let him walk out of a travel agent’s office with tickets in his hand and now, it is part of his life, has become part of his reality – even if the trip is a year away, now the speaker says, “We are going to Hawaii in 2010.” It is no longer an event remote and detached from him, but has become, from his perspective, part of his life.
So, whether I use a Future form of the verb, or Present Continous, depends on how, in my mind, I view some event which will occur after NOW.
That brings us back to 'refuses' and 'is refusing'. Let me give you a scenario:
I am a land developer, wanting to build a big supermarket. I have all the land I need, except for one piece of land with a house on it...and the man won'lt sell. I have sent a man to persuade him, and he comes back and tells me, "He refuses to sell." If he saw his attempt as over, complete, final and in the past - fait accompli - he would say, "I asked him but he refused." Instead, he uses the Present tense form. He may have gone back several times to talk to the man, and each time, he refused. He doesn't see this whole matter as over, and so uses a present tense form. At the same time, the present tense form suggests he sees this as a 'constant', a permanent state of affairs, a stalemate, and so - unending. He believes, if he goes back again after telling me, the man will refuse, and will keep doing so at every future attempt. But wily businessman me replies:" So, he's refusing (is refusing) to sell, is he? Go back and mention that the plans for the supermarket mean that the great air-conditioners for the building in operation 24 hours a day are to be located the other side of his fence, next to this living room; and that the supply trucks for the supermarket will be pulling up and unloading and driving off midnight to dawn, the other side where his bedroom is. Then he'll sell soon enough!"
I use the Present Continuous form because, 've haff vays ov making him sell'. This is purely a hiccough - a temporary situation, and that what I have suggested he do will bring this matter to an end!!
I know, this is a lot to grasp, so ask all the questions you need to!
- For Teachers