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“Please, don't mock me.”
“Oh, no, I don't! I’m not! I'm completely serious about that.”

This is a correction I received from a proofreader of my story.

How does that work? What happens here so that "I don't mock you" should be replaced with "I'm not mocking you"?

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11  
What I don't understand is why the proofreader feels a need to correct dialogue. –  Daniel Cook Jul 20 '12 at 22:19
7  
@Daniel: Actually, that's a proofreader/editor, and I specifically requested him to pay attention to me using awkward, atypical, weird-sounding forms originating from me not being a native speaker. –  SF. Jul 21 '12 at 5:46
4  
@SF.: thing is not all characters necessarily have to have perfect English, especially for characters of foreign origin or lower education, but even as a subtle hint to his deviance of society's norms by an otherwise intelligent character but it may even be just a particular perk of the character or the author, all of which makes up a character. However, I think it's justified to at least to be aware of those awkward forms, and then on to deciding whether or not that should be part of the character. –  Lie Ryan Jul 21 '12 at 15:00
2  
Thumbs up, to the comment above. If your character is someone who speaks like that, well, then it should be the author who decides on this. –  karthik Jul 21 '12 at 15:27
5  
Agreed on that, but I prefer to consciously decide when and which character has poor grammar, not when that's result of my own shortcomings. In this particular example, the one who asked might be allowed mistakes. The one who replied must be impeccable. –  SF. Jul 21 '12 at 21:30

6 Answers 6

up vote 58 down vote accepted

The usual form of such conversations is

Do not X

followed by

I am not X-ing.

This is because in the first line, one refers to not doing the action of X in general, while in the second, one refers to not doing X in that particular situation.

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10  
No that's not the reason. The reason is that "do not" is almost never used with a progressive tense in English. It doesn't make any difference whether the prohibition is particular or general: the difference between progressive and simple tenses is neutralised in that context. –  Colin Fine Jul 20 '12 at 15:31
2  
@JasperLoy I'm inclined to agree with you. To prohibit an activity with the progressive, one might say "stop X-ing". –  phoog Jul 20 '12 at 18:34
    
@JasperLoy: you might be right, but suggestions about about why a particular pattern in language has got the way it has are usually mere speculation. I'm not convinced by your argument, because I don't agree that prohibitions are necessarily general in nature. "Don't do that!" is pretty specific. I think it's rather that whatever processes led to the development and wide use of progressives in English simply never took hold in the (much less common) context of commands. And now I think of it, it's not just negative commands: we don't use progressives in the positive either. –  Colin Fine Jul 23 '12 at 14:20

"I am not" means "what I am doing now is not." Example:

Alice: "Please don't drink and drive"

Bob: "Oh, I don't" (Bob never drinks and drives)


Ellen: "Please don't drink and drive"

Frank: "Oh, I'm not" (Frank is not currently driving while drunk. [He could be currently drinking but stating his intention not to drive home])

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If you take this rule to the letter, then the first sentence of the OP means "don't mock me in general" rather than "right now". So can you explain why, if they do mean "right now", it shouldn't be changed to "Please don't be mocking me"? –  Mr Lister Jul 21 '12 at 6:54
    
@MrLister As a native speaker I consider "Please, don't mock me" to be general. "Please, don't be mocking me" also sounds as though it is general! The time specific version is "Please, stop mocking me" or "Please, don't mock me now". Not sure why, just gut feeling. –  Annan Jul 21 '12 at 18:22
    
@MrLister I assume there is a bit of missing context. You'd likely see this exchange as A:"<compliment> B:"please don't mock me" A:"I am not mocking you, that compliment was earnest" where person A uses "I am not" to refer to the specific statement. –  Jimmy Jul 22 '12 at 16:49

It has to do with the difference between these two present tenses. "I'm not mocking you" is clearer as it refers only to what is taking place at the moment when it is said. "I don't mock you" is a little ambiguous, as it could mean that the speaker never mocks the other person. I think that the alteration does improve it as it removes this ambiguity.

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3  
What you say is true, but beside the point. The question is about proofreading a story. It does not matter whether the sentence is ambiguous or not, just whether or not an English speaker would say it. An editor who changed "I only want you!" in dialogue to "I want only you!" because it is less ambiguous would be a bad editor. –  Colin Fine Jul 20 '12 at 15:28
1  
@ColinFine Such editing is perfectly reasonable if there is good reason to believe that the source of poor grammar is the author rather than the character. –  Jim Balter Jul 21 '12 at 1:19
    
@ColinFine OK I see what you mean. I would say that, in this instance, the unaltered sentence was less natural. –  JamesHH Jul 21 '12 at 20:40
    
@JimBalter: there isn't an issue of poor grammar here. The original contained something which was perfectly grammatical, and in some contexts a native English speaker would say it, but not in this particular context. –  Colin Fine Jul 23 '12 at 14:25
    
@ColinFine You're going out of you way to miss and evade the point. Replace "grammar" with "usage". Sheesh. I will not engage you further. –  Jim Balter Jul 23 '12 at 18:38

I'm not a native english speaker, but If I say "Do not mock me" to someone, it implies that I'm thinking that one is mocking me, or going to mock me. So I think the answer might be "I'm not" or also "I won't", depending on the context.

PS: Answering with "I don't mock people" also sounds right to me.

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"I don't mock you" is what you don't do in general.

"I'm not mocking you" is specifically what you are (currently) not doing.

Replacing what you don't do with with what you're not doing is the key.

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It may help to consider the converse.

In conversation, a person might say "I'm mocking you."

While she also could say "I mock you," the phrasing seems arch or archaic at best.

Since the affirmative statement would likely use the participle form, the negation using that form seems best.

I also like JamesHH explanation of the tense implications.

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protected by Jasper Loy Jul 21 '12 at 13:52

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