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Though not a native speaker I have the impression that some native speakers overuse progressive verb forms.

An example I have just read: My cat is gaining too much weight, how often should I be feeding her? I would have said " how often should I feed her".

Is my impression correct or has the use of this progessive form a nuance I don't see.

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There is no grammatical problem worth mentioning with either variant. As regards style, I'd say that conversationally, in the UK at least, '... how often should I be feeding her?' would be considered the less abrupt, 'demand-an-answer' way of addressing the person one is asking. In the US, this is probably not an issue. So it's a regional pragmatic consideration. –  Edwin Ashworth May 1 at 11:04
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Very interesting question from the perspective of a non native speaker. But overuse with respect to what? –  Josh61 May 1 at 11:05
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@Jack I mean progressive forms are used where according to my feeling the non-progessive forms would be the normal thing. –  rogermue May 1 at 11:10
    
@Jack Are you implying that OP is adopting a somewhat judgemental attitude? Prescriptive even? –  Edwin Ashworth May 1 at 14:55
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@rogermue: As you note, you're not a native speaker, so what you must mean by "some native speakers overuse progressive verb forms" is that the rule you have internalized for use of the progressive does not match the actual use of the progressive by native speakers. OK, that means your original rule was incorrect, and you should modify it to match, if you care enough. It doesn't mean they're "overusing" it; no statistics are being kept, so there's no standard to measure usage against. –  John Lawler May 1 at 16:15

1 Answer 1

In this particular case, I’d say there is a difference in meaning, though only a nuance. It appears with deontic modal verbs.

How often should I feed her?

– is a simple, straightforward question that asks for the answer to something you do not know.

How often should I be feeding her?

– implies that the asker thought they knew the answer, but clearly what they thought was right can’t be correct (as evidenced by the cat continuing to gain weight), so they are now asking what the actual correct answer is.

This is much like the distinction in the following, very similar, constructions:

You’re such a bad dancer, Billy-Bob! You constantly put your left foot first when you ought to put your right foot first.

This phrasing makes the two verbs parallel: every time you’re supposed to do X, you do Y instead.

You’re such a bad dancer, Billy-Bob! You constantly put your left foot first, when you ought to be putting your right foot first.

This phrasing disjoins the two clauses. The meaning is that you do Y (in general), but what you really should be doing is X.

While I’m sure these different uses of the progressive with deontic modals has been named by someone at some point (what hasn’t?), I don’t know what it is called.

 

(Obviously, other modals, even deontic ones, may entail other differences in nuance between simple vs. progressive constructions. The difference between “He must grow old” and “He must be growing old”, for example, is a completely different one.)

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' implies that the asker thought they knew the answer, but clearly what they thought was right can’t be correct (as evidenced by the cat continuing to gain weight), so they are now asking what the actual correct answer is.' >> I'd say that's the emphasised 'How often should I be feeding her?'. –  Edwin Ashworth May 1 at 11:06
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@Edwin, that emphasises this aspect even more, though I’d expect that mostly in reply to someone saying “You’re feeding her wrong!”. But even without stressing should, the nuance of asking for clarification of something already familiar to the asker is quite distinct to me. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 1 at 11:08
    
To me, the continuous here merely indicates the fact that the feeding is ongoing; the stress would be necessary to mark for concern that one's been getting it wrong (or that one's about to be corrected). 'How often should I feed her?' would be the obvious choice if you've just bought your first kitten. –  Edwin Ashworth May 1 at 11:22
    
@Edwin, I’d consider both the simple present and the progressive here to be habitual, not ongoing. I agree that the simple present is the obvious choice if you’ve just bought your first kitten, at which point you’re asking for new, previously unavailable information. I think we’d use the simple and progressive forms in the same circumstances, but we have different internal understandings of the nuance they each imply, which I find very interesting. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 1 at 12:33
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Perhaps a clearer example might be the contrast between "What should I do?" and "What should I be doing?". Where the first is just the simple generic form with no inherent implications regarding what (if anything) you're currently doing. The continuous form strongly implies you're already doing something - but you have reason to suspect whatever you're doing isn't the right thing, so you're asking for an alternative to the current ongoing activity. –  FumbleFingers May 1 at 13:19

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