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Progressive forms of verbs consist of a form of to be + participle. At least that is what most English grammars say or they are imprecise and speak of ing-form. My question is what follows after the forms of to be? - I'm working in the garden.

Is working here a present participle or rather a gerund? I asked myself this question long after I had left school, simply because one accepts what grammars say without much reflexion. But the longer I am thinking about this problem the more I tend to answer it is a gerund. I stumbled upon this through a curious way of speaking in German dialects. Normaly we don't use progressive forms in German, but some dialects make extensive use of forms such as - Ich bin am Aufräumen - word-for-word translation: I'm at tidying up.

Normally in English a prepoisition such as in "at tidying up" is omitted and it becomes: - I'm tidying up. In another forum, a German one about the German language, we made a study where in Germany dialects make extensive use of such forms as "beim/am Aufräumen" - and we found that these forms are in extensive use in areas along the River Rhine from Switzerland to the north, but also in the east of Germany and in the south. So it is reasonable to ask what form is used in English, participle or gerund. In Germany it is a gerund, a participle would be unusual. So it might be the same in English, but as participle and gerund have the same form it is really difficult to decide which form it is.

I derive the progressive forms from a formula with "in the act of doing": - "I'm working in the garden" means "I'm in the act of working in the garden." When you omit "in the act of" you get the normal progressive form.

I have placed this question earlier on another forum and could not convince the participants of that forum. Now I would like to hear the views on this forum.

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1. What Reg says below. 2. in English a preposition such as in "at tidying up" is omitted and it becomes: - I'm tidying up. — this is not right: there never was a preposition there in English, and "I am at tidying up" would not be correct. 3. In Germany it is a gerund — this is not correct: beim laufen or am laufen contains an infinitive, not a gerund. 4. Dutch also uses this construction, so it is just a feature of the lower German dialects that they can make a progressive by means of preposition + infinitive. –  Cerberus Jan 29 at 16:39
Your item 2: When you read my post you see that I used "at tidying up" as a word-for-word translation of the German sentence. The word-for-word translation is no Engisch, it is German with English words. Can you prove that there was never a preposition. –  rogermue Jan 29 at 18:25
I could prove it if I consulted an English historical grammar (as could you); for now, I can only assure you that I know and am 100 % certain that this was not the case: the -ing form is a participle there, so prepositions would have been impossible. There is also absolutely no reason to even suggest that there might have been a preposition, since the Dutch/German construction is completely different and unrelated (it uses the infinitive). –  Cerberus Jan 29 at 19:32
Cerberus, I'm sorry to say it. But you are mistaken. The German construction "Ich bin beim Einkaufen" or "Ich bin am Überlegen" is no infinitive but a gerund. Einkaufen and Überlegen are spelt with capital letters and "beim" and "am" contain the article (bei dem, an dem), so it is a real noun from the infinitive. –  rogermue Jan 29 at 19:47
@falkb I have seen it, really a fine find and the first evidence I read that the progressive forms really can have their origin in a prep + ger. –  rogermue May 6 at 4:21

2 Answers 2

This is a strange theory that is provably wrong. It is easy to trace "I am working" back to determine that it has not developed from "I am at working", and it is obvious that the rheinische Verlaufsform is different from the English Present Progressive in other ways, not just the preposition. For starters, it uses the nominalized bare infinitive, and it uses it with a definite article. So the English counterpart would really be "I am at the work", where work is a bare infinitive. Does not compute, sorry.

Edit: oh, and the German equivalent of this English -ing is actually -end. So it would have to be "ich bin arbeitend" in German, or something along those lines. Not "ich bin am Arbeiten".

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And I'll see if I can get someone in chat with a better knowledge of Dutch to comment on this, as the rheinische Verlaufsform, to my knowledge, is all but standard there. –  RegDwigнt Jan 29 at 14:48
You write "provably wrong" - but in this matter there are not any proofs up to now. I have been looking for something that might give a hint, but the only formula I have found is "in the act of doing". Though this formula is rare it is used in English and here we have a gerund. –  rogermue Jan 29 at 14:53
Exactly cognate to the rheinische Verlaufsform is the way progressives are made in both Danish (Jeg er ved at rydde op = I am by/at to clean up = I’m cleaning up), European Portuguese (Estou a limpar = I am at/to/by to-clean = I’m cleaning), Irish (Tá mé ag glanadh = I am at/by cleaning [verbal noun] = I’m cleaning), Chinese (我在打扫 = I [am] at/by/in clean = I’m cleaning—verbs in Chinese, of course, are not inflected and cannot show which form is being used). The English construction is similar to the Spanish (Estoy limpiando = I am cleaning), where a simple --> –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 29 at 14:54
--> present participle is used with a copula to indicate the progressive tense. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 29 at 14:55
@RegDwigнt You're right, this construction is perfectly normal in Dutch. Ik ben aan het koken = "I am cooking". –  Cerberus Jan 29 at 16:41

After some research I came across this remarkable academic document "On the progression of the progressive in early Modern English - icame": Please, read especially page 7, I think this is the actual puzzle piece we're looking for! Here some excerpts:

"... There seems to be pretty general agreement that at least as far as form is concerned it derives most directly from a construction in Old English, with parallels in many other early Germanic languages, which also consisted of a combination of a BE verb and a present participle, in Old English generally taken the ending -ende ... this construction was more common in translations from Latin, especially of complex Latin verb forms, than in original Old English texts ..." => e.g.: æt scip wæs ealne weg yrnende under segle. (that ship was all the way running under sail.)

Further quoting:

"... In Middle English two things happened: the BE plus present participle construction, never particularly frequent in Old English, became even less frequent, and the form of the present participle changed, from taking the ending -ende to taking -ing, to coincide with the nominal verb form known as the gerund, now regularly also ending in -ing. This meant not only that the construction of BE plus present participle became formally more similar to the progressive construction we are familiar with today; it also meant that the Middle English construction of BE plus present participle became more similar to another construction that occurred in Old and Middle English, with BE followed by a preposition, often on, plus the gerund, as in Old English ..." => ZyrstandæZ ic wæs on huntunZe (Here huntunZe is the nominal verb form, the gerund, corresponding to Modern English hunting, and so it means Yesterday I was hunting.)

And finally:

"... In Middle English similar constructions began to be common with just a light a before the main verb, as in ‘He was a-hunting.’, generally seen as a remnant of the full preposition. If the preposition was not only reduced but dropped altogether, there was no longer any formal difference between the two constructions: that with BE followed by the present participle, and that with BE followed by the gerund, now without any intervening preposition. At about the same time that this levelling of the difference between the two constructions became widespread, i.e. roughly at the transition from Middle to Modern English at around A.D. 1500, the combined construction consisting of BE plus an -ing-form seems to have started to increase quite drastically in frequency. ..."

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