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Premise
I hate translation work. On the other hand, proofreading somebody's English written work is fine as long as I can speak to that person face-to-face. Nuances, ambiguities, false friends etc. get ironed out, and a satisfactory text will be produced. So, whenever a blatant proofreading question appears on ELU, I happily click off-topic, and forget about it. But not always…


An excerpt of the original translation by a German speaker

  1. I can go by suburban train, that’s only five minutes. Then, I still have to walk ten minutes. But I am always going by bike, then I am in quarter an hour at my desk.

My edited version (which was a bit rushed).

  1. I can go by suburban train, that’s only five minutes. Then, I still have to walk another ten minutes. But I always go by bike, then I am at my desk in fifteen minutes.

I know the phrase I'm always going by bike is grammatical, it expresses a habitual action; however, many grammar books suggest that the present progressive tense is used in conjunction with always to emphasize the speaker's annoyance and irritation. The classic phrase churned out being:

He's always forgetting his keys.

Michael Swan in PEU (point 503) writes

However, there is another way to use always: when we want to say that something happens often and (probably) unexpectedly. In this case, we use progressive tenses.

  • She's always giving people little presents
  • My grandfather was always forgetting things.

This structure is often used to talk about irritating, annoying things that happen frequently. Instead of always, other words with similar meanings (e.g. forever, constantly and continually) can be used.

When I hear myself say “I'm always going by bike” aloud, it's in a chirpy upbeat voice because the speaker doesn't strike me as being annoyed or wearied. If the speaker came across as being irritated, I might have left that phrase alone.

Question No.1

  • Which version would be more appropriate? And Why?
  1. “I'm always going by bike”
  2. “I always go by bike”

Then I would like to hear what others think of changing the expression ‘quarter an hour’ to ‘fifteen minutes’. Although the expression should be written ‘quarter of an hour’, the preposition of is usually elided in speech (at least that's my impression). Yet the original translation, “in quarter an hour”, to me looks awkward.

By comparison, the Italian un quarto d'ora (a quarter of an hour) and quindici minuti (fifteen minutes) are interchangeable in speech. In my opinion, native speakers prefer to say fifteen minutes as it's shorter and more idiomatic-sounding.

Question No.2

  • Is my preferring “fifteen minutes” a question of style and convenience, or do native speakers actually say “a quarter of an hour”?

Finally, here is the version which I came up with. Is it OK?

  1. I can take the suburban train, that’s only five minutes, but I'd still have to walk another ten, so I always go by bike. That way I'm at my desk in fifteen minutes.
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    While it's often used for annoying things, it's not used exclusively for that. Giving presents isn't annoying, is it? The progressive tense makes always less literal -- it's just something they do frequently, not really all the time. – Barmar Apr 19 '15 at 8:53
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    To me "a quarter hour" sounds American. The English equivalent would indeed be "quarter of an hour" and similarly common to "fifteen minutes". "half an hour" would also be the choice in the UK. – Chris H Apr 19 '15 at 12:11
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    I'd say what you have is fine. The original translation is not really idiomatic, and seems awkward to the native (US) English speaker. And I'm having trouble thinking of an idiomatic rephrasing that would express irritation. Best I can think of is something like "If I do go by bike..." – Hot Licks Apr 19 '15 at 12:20
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    I'm American, and a quarter hour sounds too informal to me for formal writing, but I think it's reasonably common in speech in the U.S. Although I think fifteen minutes has become more common since the introduction of digital clocks. – Peter Shor Apr 19 '15 at 12:51
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    And in the U.S. Northeast, we'd say take the commuter rail ( or, if it's clear from context, just take the train) and not the suburban train. – Peter Shor Apr 19 '15 at 12:56
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"I'm always going by bike" sounds odd, though it's hard to say quite why. The progressive seems better suited to habits of a continuous nature rather than recurrent events. Thus "I'm always riding my bike" seems fine, though isn't applicable in this case. In this case I would use "I always go by bike" as appropriate to the repeated but discontinuous nature of the statement. Your final version sounds good to me (though I'd personally drop the "still" as implied by "another"). Though I'd be happy with "quarter of an hour" (en-gb, see my comment), "fifteen minutes" has a nice symmetry with the rest. In speech the "minutes" could of course be dropped as implied.

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Consider: "I always eat bread." and "I'm always eating bread." The first connotes that there is a preference for choosing bread while the latter connotes bread is being consumed continuously, if not nonstop, even in the present.

To return to your question, "I'm always going by bike" connotes continuous travel using this mode of transport (with a hint of probable dislike), while "I always go by bike" connotes recurring conscientious decision.

Think, "I always go to work by car" (because I have one) against "I'm always going to work by car" (because there are no convenient bus stops nearby).

  • Could you please express your preference between quarter of an hour / quarter hour and fifteen minutes, stating whether you are a British speaker or an American one. Thank you! – Mari-Lou A Apr 20 '15 at 10:00
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    I speak American English, and prefer to use fifteen minutes, in this case. – keithmaxx Apr 21 '15 at 6:54
  • Thanks, I was hoping you'd edit your piece and include that info but as long as you don't delete your comment, it should be fine. – Mari-Lou A Apr 21 '15 at 15:18
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I agree that this is an odd situation, but not quite for the reason you've stated. I think you need to provide more context (always important for translation, as I'm sure you'll agree). The problem is that the speaker seems to be presenting two courses of action, train/walk or bike, and both take equal time, 15 minutes, yet he seems to prefer biking, and there is no indication of why. If he has stated earlier that he just enjoys biking, or thinks it's more environmentally friendly, then I think you could say, "But I'm always going by bike, and I'm at my desk in the same fifteen minutes." In this case, you could use "always going" to express habitual (but not fanatical) bike use, where "I always go" indicates a more consistent, intentional behavior.

  • I'll take your word on it, since I don't speak German. And yes, if she takes pride in frugality, that would serve as an excellent reason. – WhatRoughBeast Apr 20 '15 at 2:18
  • I'm sorry? You ask me to provide more context, but I didn't write the piece. The piece is an English translation of a short German text, I don't speak German either, and what has that got to do with proofreading? – Mari-Lou A Apr 20 '15 at 2:24
  • My apologies. I missed the fact that you were referring me to a translation. Having read it, I don't see anything which would improve your understanding of context. Actually, I agree with your final version, it's just that I don't understand the use of "That way", since either way she gets to her desk in 15 minutes. – WhatRoughBeast Apr 20 '15 at 2:34

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