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Why does a sentence like I realized that the number of cars had been increasing sound strange?

I googled "realized that the number of * had been increasing", and then I found only three exmples.

But I found a great number of examples like "realized that the number of * had increased".

Why is it impossible to use "past perfect progressive" with realize or find to refer to the number?

Logically, you can "realize the incremental number".

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    Who says it sounds strange? – Robusto Jul 2 '15 at 3:23
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    Nobody says so. But if it is not strange, how do you explain the google results? – user126007 Jul 2 '15 at 3:31
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    I get about 5M results in the google for "has been increasing." – deadrat Jul 2 '15 at 3:34
  • Sorry, deadrat. My mistake. Why is the combination of "realized" and "had been increasing" is uncommon? – user126007 Jul 2 '15 at 3:46
  • I don't know. Maybe because it's a very specific locution. – deadrat Jul 3 '15 at 3:36
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The rarity is probably because when you realize something, it must be due to an event that has occurred. So in order to realize that some number has been increasing, you need to somehow infer at some point in time that the number has been increasing (since some earlier point of time and stretching to beyond the current point of time). It is difficult to do that. This explains why you found many examples with "had increased" rather than "had been increasing", and will also explain rarity with similar verbs like "recognized", all of which express a point in time of the verb occurrence.

In contrast, there are many examples with "said/thought/knew/showed/found that [...] had been increasing", for exactly the same reason, because here there is no point event that is required by the semantics of those verbs.

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  • I don't see the construction or logic as problematic. Am I missing something? If we shift this to the present "I realize that the number has been increasing." it works. – michael_timofeev Aug 2 '15 at 9:05
  • The past perfect progressive just means that when the speaker made the realization the increase was still happening and relevant. Are you saying that a realization cannot happen "now" as in "I'm realizing?" – michael_timofeev Aug 2 '15 at 9:18
  • @michael_timofeev: I'm not saying that it is logically impossible. It is just logically rare. What you said in your second comment is in my answer ("since some earlier point of time and stretching to beyond the current point of time"). It is rarer for verbs like "realize" because they denote a point in time that you grasp the increasing. Your example in your first comment is not simply a shift to present tense, because there "realize" is not a point event unlike "realized". This is why "realize" is easily compatible with "has been increasing". – user21820 Aug 2 '15 at 9:41
  • @michael_timofeev: For the same reason "You will realize that the number will have been increasing." is logically rare. – user21820 Aug 2 '15 at 9:43
  • So if I understand you feel that realize is a process and not an event – michael_timofeev Aug 2 '15 at 10:01
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This is related to perfect continuous past and simple past. You'd want to say:

I had begun to realize that the number of cars was increasing. 

Or

I had realized that the number of cars had been increasing.

The second one is more appealing, and closer in meaning to your sentence. The only change being the addition of 'had' before 'realized'. 'Realized' and 'Had realized' (Simple past and past perfect) makes the difference.

Note: The sentence you've mentioned can also be considered correct if it's used in appropriate context (If the context is along the lines of the 'increase in number of cars' action having occurred before your realization, and wasn't an instant observation you had made in the past).

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  • Is it possible to put two past perfect verbs in a sentence without a simple past reference point? – michael_timofeev Aug 2 '15 at 9:21
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I realized that the number of cars had been increasing.

Let's recast this sentence into the present:

I realize that the number of cars has been increasing.

That would be more common than the original past tense/past perfect version.

I will try to imagine some context for the sentence that felt strange to you. Suppose you go to a local government public meeting on June 1st where some traffic problem is being discussed. As part of the discussion, you might say, I realize that the number of cars has been increasing, but I wasn't aware that ....

Now let's allow some time to go by. One day you are telling a friend how your views on that traffic topic have evolved. You might say, I realized that the number of cars had been increasing, but then in early June I learned that ....

I had to work pretty hard to build a story around your strange sentence... but I think I got it to work.

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