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I saw the following on an ESL test:

John: How often …………… ?
Dave: He …………… at least five days a week.

a) does he exercise - swims
b) is he exercising - is swimming
c) is he exercising - swims
d) does he exercise - is swimming

I think both (a) and (b) are acceptable and the test isn't standard. Please correct me if I'm mistaken.

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I'm starting to think some of these ESL tests are about as reliable as spell checkers. I think I understand what the test creators are driving at (they want testers to recognize matching tenses), but, fact is, sometimes tenses can be – and do get – mixed in a conversation like this. I think (d) seems least natural, but none of these strike me as particularly awful. By the way, does the question ask you to pick the "present continuous" tense? If so, that would make more sense. –  J.R. Sep 14 '12 at 8:59
    
"I think I understand what the test creators are driving at (they want testers to recognize matching tenses)" Absolutely right. "does the question ask you to pick the 'present continuous' tense?" Not really. I checked the answer key and realized that students are expected to select the first option, i.e. present simple. But then I thought why not using a present continuous -- it seems to make sense as well. –  Mori Sep 14 '12 at 9:13
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It's not hard for me to imagine John & Dave at a gym, and the conversation going like this: "Have you seen Paul lately?" "No, why?" "He's looking really good!" "Really? Lost a lot of weight?" "Yeah." "Wow. How often is he exercising?" "He swims at least five days a week, I think. I'm always seeing him at the pool." "Good, it's nice to hear about someone keeping their New Year's resolution for a change." Nothing in that dialog would tag John or Dave as a non-native speaker (although they might seem unrealistically concerned with Paul's weight) :^) –  J.R. Sep 14 '12 at 9:32
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I don't think anything is wrong with either a or c. The main thing wrong with b and d is that native English speakers would say "he goes swimming" or "he's going swimming", and not "he is swimming". But that's not a problem with the tense. –  Peter Shor Sep 14 '12 at 18:54
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I think the "is swimming" forms could work too, IF there were context having to do with a change in the person's exercise habits: "Man, have you noticed how much more time Paul spends at the gym lately?" "Yeah, I have. How often does he exercise?" "He's swimming at least five days a week now." That sounds fine to me, although the is swimming form would sound BEST if it immediately followed a sentence like this: "He only used to exercise once in a blue moon, but he's swimming at least five days a week now", making it clear that the swimming frequency isn't a fully habitual characteristic. –  alcas Sep 14 '12 at 18:58

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

As a native speaker, I would expect ESL test questions to be blatantly obvious to me, such that all the wrong answers are clearly things that only non-native spakers would say. The question here doesn't meet my expectations. Obviously (a) is the most natural without context, but in the right context any of (b), (c), or (d) would be possible for native speakers in some situations.

J.R. gave this conceivable scenario for choice (c) in his comment on the question:

"Have you seen Paul lately?"
"No, why?" "He's looking really good!"
"Really? Lost a lot of weight?"
"Yeah."
"Wow. How often is he exercising?"
"He swims at least five days a week, I think. I'm always seeing him at the pool."
"Good, it's nice to hear about someone keeping their New Year's resolution for a change."

Alcas similarly gave a conceivable scenario for the "is swimming" choices (b) and (d):

"He only used to exercise once in a blue moon, but he's swimming at least five days a week now"

The question is faulty.

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Thanks for the answer! –  Mori Sep 15 '12 at 14:43

A good way to differentiate simple from continuous is that simple describes how something is, as in characteristics, while continuous describes an isolated occurrence - Edward Calver, Language, Vol 22 gives a good account of this concept.

For example,

"Cats climb trees" - present simple, describes a cat's characteristic.
"The cat is climbing a tree" - present continuous, describes a single occurrence of a cat running up a tree.
"David walks to work" - present simple, describing a characteristic of David.
"David is walking to work" - present continuous, describing a single occurrence of David commuting on foot.

Using that, and looking at the second sentence in your question, it mentions "...at least five days a week". That is not a single occurrence, and hence cannot be continuous. That rules out b (is he exercising - is swimming) and d (does he exercise - is swimming).

Looking at the first sentence, that is asking "how often...", and the question is about exercising which is something the anonymous he does, and as it is a characteristic rather than one occurrence, should be simple.

The only answer that fits is a (does he exercise - swims)

Answer c) - "how often is he exercising" - is conceivable, but so non-standard that searching BNC, COCA, and Google Books gets no hits. Even a straight Google search gets only two hits.

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@Roaring Fish: "Using that, and looking at the second sentence in your question, it mentions '...at least five days a week'. That is not a single occurrence, and hence cannot be continuous." That's not true. When you use the present continuous, you're talking about something that happens around 'now' and it can can happen with any frequency: every day, every week, two times a week, etc. Here's an example from BNC: "What we say is that our juvenile liaison officers are working six or seven between six and ten hours unpaid overtime every week, just trying to do their normal core work." –  Mori Sep 14 '12 at 14:28
    
@RainLover ~ is the unpaid overtime a characteristic? If it is, they got it wrong - it does happen! - and should have used "officers work six or seven...", or, if the situation has a beginning but unknown end, it should be perfect - "officers have been working..." More likely, it is a temporary situation that has a beginning and and an anticipated end, and is not characteristic, in which case continuous is correct. Corpora are useful things, but one of the first things you learn when you are trained to use them is that appearing in a corpora does not make a sentence magically correct. –  Roaring Fish Sep 14 '12 at 14:43
    
"More likely, it is a temporary situation that has a beginning and and an anticipated end, and is not characteristic, in which case continuous is correct." Good! Now the questions is: can't you exercise for a temporary short time, e.g. two months, and five times a week? –  Mori Sep 14 '12 at 15:12
    
The question is, is there any indication that this special case applies in your example question? Does it say anything about 'he' exercising five times a week, but only for the next two months? You are welcome to make that assumption, to pretend that the question says something else, but your answer will be wrong and deservedly so. –  Roaring Fish Sep 14 '12 at 15:23
    
"is there any indication that this special case applies in your example question?" You're right, and that's why I say the test is not standard -- the conversation between John and Dave should be in a context to help students decide clearly which tense to use. Where there's no sign, any option can be correct. –  Mori Sep 14 '12 at 15:31

The question describes a "habit" which occurs five times a week. So,I would use the simple present tense for both the question and the answer. The correct answer is a) does he exercise - swims

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