I've been studying Latin by myself as a kid in middle school, and I've gotten fairly advanced with it. However, in Latin and most other languages, the present participle is/was almost never used in the place of an active. In English, this isn't the case. For some reason, it's considerably more common to announce "I'm writing," rather than "I write."

Often, I wonder exactly how the present participle came to be as ubiquitous as it is with the verb "to be," but not as a regular adjective. What is the reason for this odd choice? Why has become so frequent?

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    Hello and welcome to EL&U. Your assertion seems to ring true but this Ngram doesn't support it. Do you have other data that you can link to?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Mar 31, 2017 at 13:33
  • Indeed, "I write" and "I'm writing" are both regularly used phrases -- but they mean different things. Naturally "I'm writing" would be more popular for the meaning where it's appropriate ("I'm writing this comment" vs "I write comments"). Commented Mar 31, 2017 at 13:46
  • No, as per [books.google.com/ngrams/… I write is commoner than I am writing. Commented Mar 31, 2017 at 13:46
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    Despite the ngram, I think this is a valid question. The other Germanic languages I'm familiar with are more likely to answer the equivalent of "What are you eating?" with their equivalent of "I eat a sandwich" rather than their equivalent of "I am eating a sandwich". Commented Mar 31, 2017 at 14:52

1 Answer 1


John McWhorter writes that it "is almost certainly" due to the influence of Celtic languages spken alongside English (1):

Given that Celtic languages were right there alongside English all the time, if English and Celtic share features of grammar that are rather unusual worldwide, then obviously Attention Must Be Paid to Celtic. Another Celtic inheritance is almost certainly the progressive -ING one: in any other Germanic language, where I say I AM WRITING they would just say I WRITE. Again, Celtic languages have always done it as English now does.

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    To pick a relatively unimportant nit: the (Insular) Celtic languages here do not actually have present participles at all like English does. Rather, they have verbal nouns, which serve a wide variety of functions: infinitive, noun, present participle, etc. What these languages actually do is is use the copula (a form of to be) + a preposition (yn ‘in’ in Welsh; ag ‘at’ in Irish/Scottish, etc.) + a verbal noun. Functionally, though, it’s equivalent to the English system. Commented Mar 31, 2017 at 15:37
  • (It’s also not quite true that people would just say “I write” in all the other Germanic languages—most, in fact, do have ways of expressing the continuous aspect, and they are often just as similar to the Celtic ones as the English way is. In Danish, for instance, you might say “I am at to write”, and in German is increasingly common and Dutch, “I am at/on [the] reading” is common. Not as common as in English, but common enough.) Commented Mar 31, 2017 at 15:43
  • @JanusBahsJacquet thanks for clearing that up. Incidentally, Brazilian Portuguese is also experiencing a shift in usage towards continuous formations (the phenomenon is called gerundismo and often blamed on the influence of English). Commented Mar 31, 2017 at 16:12

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