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I'm looking for possible semantic constraints on the sequence have a problem V-ing.

Can you say, for example, he has a problem speaking English? What about he has a problem playing the piano?

Someone told me he has a problem speaking English is unnatural. But he has a problem pronouncing this word seems natural.

So I suspect that the semantic constraint is that the V-ing cannot refer to a general ability. But I am not sure if 'he has a problem playing the piano' is OK.

FYI, he has a problem following my argument also seems OK.

  • Note that have a problem speaking English and plural have problems speaking English both return about 70 hits in Google Books, and plural have difficulties speaking English gets only a couple of dozen. The normal phrasing, with 1320 hits, is have difficulty speaking English. – FumbleFingers Jul 17 '16 at 12:05
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    If what you're talking about is impaired ability, it would be better to use difficulty. Idiomatically, to [not] have a problem V-ing is more likely where what you mean is to [not] be reluctant to V. But this is stuff for English Language Learners. – FumbleFingers Jul 17 '16 at 12:13
  • Can you please expand on how your term semantic constraint applies to your two examples? I'm not a professional linguist, so may be off base here, but in the sense of this extract, the verbs in your examples are of the same semantic type - namely, action caused directly by the respective subjects of the sentences. – Lawrence Jul 17 '16 at 12:25
  • I see you've edited your question. It's much clearer now. The contrasting example you introduced pushes this firmly into interesting question territory for me. I hope this question isn't migrated. – Lawrence Jul 17 '16 at 13:06
  • This is just conjecture, but perhaps it has something to do with how natural it would be in each case to ask (or to answer) the question, "What is the problem?" E.g. for speaking English, the problem might be with tenses, but that's not a speaking problem; or it might be with pronunciation, but that's not necessarily about English per se. On the other hand, with pronouncing this word, the answer is likely to be quite straightforward, e.g. dealing with silent letters. – Lawrence Jul 17 '16 at 13:16
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In normal English usage 'he has a problem speaking English' sounds quite natural but the singularity of 'a problem' makes it sound a little unlikely. Perhaps 'he has difficulty' would be better.

Regarding the piano, it sounds more reasonable. eg.

  • 'he has a problem playing the piano'
  • 'what problem?'
  • 'he only has 3 fingers on his right hand'

'He has a problem with speaking English' is different; it carries the connotation that there is something external to his speech which is the problem, such as a bias against the language.

  • 'I have a problem V-ing' is idiomatic in a conversational register for 'I find V-ing difficult'; there may be many sub-problems. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 17 '16 at 11:35
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    @EdwinAshworth Do you find 'I have a problem speaking English' natural? – Apollyon Jul 17 '16 at 11:52
  • @ Edwin Ashworth - Do you feel that both phrases are semantically correct or that the OP's question is unanswerable? – grateful Jul 17 '16 at 11:52
  • @Apollyon There are over 500 000 Google hits for "no problem getting" and many for "had a problem getting". I think you've got to say that the construction is grammatical, but that individual examples are more or less idiomatic. This comment modifies my previous one, where I was addressing this answerer's "the singularity of 'a problem' makes it sound a little unlikely". I wouldn't use either the "he has a problem playing the piano" or "he has a problem speaking English" in formal communication. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 17 '16 at 16:15
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My Professor always says: Any problem understanding what I mean? Or Any problems doing exercises? She is an Australian woman. I am sure about the idioms like to have difficulty in doing something, but with regards to this phrase I cannot think of any usage with prepositions.

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