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I was trying to construct example sentences of the verb "to be" in the usual 12 tenses (or tense-aspects).

First we have these sentences (no problem here):

Simple

  1. Present: He is a teacher.
  2. Past: He was a teacher.
  3. Future: He will be a teacher.

Perfect

  1. Present: He has been a teacher.
  2. Past: He had been a teacher.
  3. Future: He will have been a teacher.

Next, we seem to get some weird sentences (or perhaps my constructions are mistaken--if so, please just let me know):

Continuous

  1. Present: He is being a teacher.
  2. Past: He was being a teacher.
  3. Future: He will be being a teacher.

Sentences 7–9 are a bit uncommon/weird, but I guess it's not a stretch to use them in e.g. this context:

John is a teacher.

Note that when John tries/tried to show you how to do things, he isn't/wasn't being arrogant. He is/was (just) being a teacher.

Note that when in future John tries to show you how to do things, he won't be being arrogant. He will (just) be being a teacher.

Perfect Continuous

  1. Present: He has been being a teacher.
  2. Past: He had been being a teacher.
  3. Future: He will have been being a teacher.

Here I struggle much more to come up with when we'd ever use 10–12. I guess for 12, I could try to adapt the above examples:

Note that in future, John will try to show you how to do things. He won't have been being arrogant. He will (just) have been being a teacher.

But this sounds really strange and awkward.

Question. Are there somewhat common/natural ways we might ever use 10–12?

(Similarly for 7–9: Are there maybe better/more common/natural examples than those I tried to give above?)

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    A verb doesn't have to have a use in every conceivable tense! I can't imagine that 10-12 would ever be used in real life. Commented Mar 23 at 8:42
  • @KateBunting: Sure, that could well be the answer, but I was just wondering. Maybe someone here can come up with some surprising examples. Or maybe come up with a nice explanation of why no good natural examples are possible.
    – user182601
    Commented Mar 23 at 8:59
  • Mother to child's carer: "Is he being good?" Carer: "He's been 'being good' all day." (meaning that he has behaved well.) But this is a 'quirky' use, and in real life most people would say "He's been good all day." Commented Mar 23 at 10:28
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    @greybeard, I rolled your pointless and destructive edit back.
    – TonyK
    Commented Mar 24 at 14:22
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    @Greybeard: "we have a limited time to answer questions"? That is unhinged! Nobody is holding a gun to BillJ's head. The question has inconvenienced nobody, except perhaps you and BillJ.
    – TonyK
    Commented Mar 25 at 13:47

2 Answers 2

9

There exists a natural incompatibility in the use of the progressive in these particular examples. The verb "to be" is par excellence a stative verb, and here is what A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk et al., 1985) has to say about the use of the progressive as concerns those verbs.

(CoGEL § 4.26) State, event, and habit with the progressive

The three verb senses of state, event, and habit are differently interpreted with the progressive:
(a) STATE PROGRESSIVE In many cases […] the progressive is unacceptable with stative verbs:

  • We own a house in the country.
  • *We are owning a house in the country.
  • *Sam's wife was being well-dressed.

This can be explained, in part, by the observation that stative verb meanings are inimical to the idea that some phenomenon is 'in progress'. States are 'like-parted' in that every segment of a state has the same character as any other segment: no progress is made. (Contrast We are building a house in the country.) Where the progressive does occur, it is felt to imply temporariness rather than permanence:

  • We are living in the country. [temporary residence]
  • We live in the country. [permanent residence]

[…]

A possibility of such a use of the progressive (with "to be" and other verbs) does exist, but it constitutes a rather marginal usage (not to be undervalued, though).

(CoGEL § 4.28) Stative types A and B: qualities and states

Among stative situation types, a rough distinction may be drawn between QUALITIES […] and STATES […]. Qualities are relatively permanent and inalienable properties of the subject referent. The primary verbs be and have are preeminently quality-introducing verbs; but they can also introduce the less permanent situation types called states.
Contrast:

QUALITIES

  • Mary is Canadian. [1]
  • Mary has blue eyes. [2]

STATES

  • Mary is tired.[3]
  • Mary has a bad cold. [4]

Normally such stative situation types do not occur with the progressive (this is especially trde of qualities):

  • *Mary is being a Canadian.[1a]

  • *Mary is having blue eyes. [2a]

  • ?*Mary is being tired. [3a]

  • ?Mary is having a bad cold. [4a]

If sentences such as [1a-4a] do occur with the progressive, it is a sign that they have been in some sense reinterpreted as containing a dynamic predication. For example, Peter is being awkward signifies that 'awkwardness' is a form of behaviour or activity, not a permanent trait. If sentence [3a] were to occur, it would signify that Mary was pretending to be tired (ie indulging in a deceptive activity), rather than in a state of real lassitude. Although verbs with stative meaning have sometimes been called 'nonprogressive', we should observe that the definition of stative verbs is not so much that they are incompatible with the progressive, as that when they are combined with the progressive, some change of interpretation other than the addition of the 'temporary' meaning of the progressive aspect is required. This change of interpretation can usually be explained as a transfer, or reclassification of the verb as dynamic, eg as having a meaning of process or agentivity. The representative stative verbs be, hope, and resemble, are illustrated in Table 4.28:

NORMAL NONPROGRESSIVE NONNORMAL PROGRESSIVE SPECIAL EFFECT OF PROGRESSIVE
The neighbours are friendly. The neighbours are being friendly. Suggests that 'friendliness' is a form of behaviour (perhaps insincere).
I hope you will come. I am hoping you will come. Makes the speaker's attitude more tentative and perhaps more polite.
Tina resembles her sister. Tina is resembling her sister more and more. With the comparative construction, the progressive turns the stative meaning into a process meaning.

Note:    *    unacceptable
             ?*    tending to acceptability
              ?    native speakers unsure about acceptability

It follows that the use of "7", "8", and "9" is not normally possible; in the case of qualities, I am not aware that a reinterpretation should be possible. However, I am aware of the recent success of the expression "was being a smartass" (note that "is being a smartass" is not used), and so there is perhaps a tendancy towards acceptability.

Addition Here is an excerpt from Jespersen's grammar that would not have been deemed a superficial complement as a quote in CoGEL (but, of course, the size of books is a limiting factor); this après coup reference is the result of some research prompted by some critical comments, and I would gladly have used it initially if I had been aware of it (I have unfortunately never had the leisure to read Jespersen's grammar, by the way). (user LPH's bold type)

Jespersen, Modern English Grammar.

Examples: Keats 5.72 You will be glad to hear … how diligent I have been, and am being | Di D 488 they are always being hungry and discontented somewhere | Benson D 89 Dodo was making an effort to read, but she was not being very successful| Galsw D 193 I am sorry if you think I am being ungrateful | I'm being absurd, I know | Bennet A 205 Now, Mr. Price, the coroner said blandly, and it was plain that he was being ceremoniously polite | NP ' 08 It is very painful to be thought obstinate when one is merely being firm | Russell Soc Reconstr 114 In acting as they do they imagine that they are being virtuous.
14.7(4) The predicative is generally an adjective denoting some characteristic mental or moral quality, and very often a transitory condition or behaviour is meant in contrast to the person's habitual or real character (cf. the contrast in Spanish between soy and estoy, and similar distinctions made in different ways in other languages PG 280). The transitoriness is particularly clear in quotations like these:
Walpole OL 124 He was only being kind for the moment | id Cp 125 Or was he only being friendly because he was happy? | Wells Br 5 over here we ate being and over there you are beginning | id TB 1. 152 She's been a model—she is a model really [has just been—is professionally] | Shaw A 71 don't be horrid … I'm not being horrid. I'm not going to be horrid.
14.7(5) Examples with substantives as predicatives are rarer and comparatively unnatural:
Benson D 2.309 then I was being a woman, now I am talking as an artist | Lawrence L 191 She was being a heroine in a romance | Wells JP 618 in certain matters you are being a fool

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    Indeed! for 10, *Johnny has been getting detentions recently because he has been being a smartass".
    – Peter
    Commented Mar 23 at 11:11
  • Google Books does have some examples of he's being a smartass, she's being a smartass, I'm being a smartass, you're being a smartass
    – user182601
    Commented Mar 24 at 8:11
  • What are 7, 8 and 9? There don’t seem to be any such example sentences in the answer. And as noted in the comment just above this, the statement that ‘being a smartass’ is only used in the past tense is… very strange, to say the least. It’s perfectly natural in any tense that reasonably fits. Commented Mar 24 at 10:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Those three examples were in the OP, which has now been greatly reduced in size. // The ngram (see the answer) is somewhat wrong: there should probably be in it a near-zero red curve at the bottom; in comparison to the past-continuous, however, the present is hardly used at all, which is what I take as very strange (perhaps those are things that are not said easily when in the presence of the people indulging in this sort of behaviour.)
    – LPH
    Commented Mar 24 at 13:12
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    I don’t understand that Ngram, to be honest. In actual spoken language, the present-continuous form ‘[someone] is being a smartass’ is at least as common as – probably more common than – the past-continuous form ‘[someone] was being a smartass’. Written texts in general have a natural tendency to skew towards past, since narratives are often written in the past tense, but the complete absence of the present form here is inexplicable to me, especially given the actual examples from Google Books linked to above (which should be included in the Ngram to begin with!). Commented Mar 24 at 14:10
4

Here’s what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has to say:

Expressions denoting purely static situations do not combine felicitously with progressive aspect: . . . ?The Earth is being round/flat; ?The solution is consisting of salt and vinegar . . . There are, however, several ways in which the progressive can combine with a basically stative expression to yield a dynamic interpretation:

[14]  i  He is being tactful. [agentive activity]
        ii  He’s making more and more / fewer and fewer mistakes. [waxing/waning]
       iii  She is cycling to work this week. [temporary state]

Describing agentive activity, CGEL continues:

Non-progressive He is tactful is static: we interpret tactful as denoting a personal quality. Progressive He is being tactful ([14i]), by contrast, is dynamic: we interpret it as involving agentive activity, as describing his present behaviour, “He is behaving tactfully”. (There may also be a suggestion that he is putting on an act.)

In cases like that, there’s no reason you can’t put the verb through its paces:

He’s being stupid. He has been being stupid lately. He will no doubt be being stupid tomorrow. I’m just being polite. I have been being polite my whole life. He’s just being a good teacher when he tells you to do your homework. By the time he retires, he will have been being a good teacher for forty years.

Note also that be being naturally shows up in the passive voice:

Active: They have been harassing him. Passive: He has been being harassed. Active: We will be testing the fire alarm tomorrow. Passive: The fire alarm will be being tested tomorrow.

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    But do note that, while finite (is/are/was/were) + being is perfectly natural and common in these situations, infinite forms (be/been/being) + being does have more bias against it and is more likely to be avoided. “He’s being stupid” and “I’m just being polite” are undeniably commonplace; “He has been being stupid lately” much less so. In natural speech, I’d say most people would find it clunky and would naturally use “He’s been acting stupid lately” instead. In the passive, removing the participle or substituting getting would be more natural as well. Commented Mar 24 at 10:34
  • @Lambie Neither I nor the answer said that. Commented Mar 24 at 16:19
  • You did say this: [...] infinite forms (be/been/being) + being does have more bias against it and is more likely to be avoided". Avoided by whom?
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 24 at 17:22
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    @Lambie Avoided by speakers when speaking naturally. And no, I did not say “best avoided”, which is a prescriptive value judgment – that was exclusively your phrasing. What I said, and stand by, is that speakers are less likely to use the infinite forms than the finite forms in natural speech. Commented Mar 24 at 19:00
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You don't have to repeat it twice. Do you? And I disagree with you anyway. You said: ** is more likely to be avoided**. It depends. If I say: They are really being obnoxious, and have been being that way now for ages. That is completely natural.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 24 at 21:13

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