"I'm only joking" and "She wasn't joking". Why is the verb to joke used in the present continuous, instead of the present simple tense? Is it because it's a dynamic verb?

  • I think your examples are referred to the "present continuos" and "past continuos" tenses, not 'dynamic verbs'. – user19148 Jul 8 '12 at 13:09
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    thanks, but why do we not normally use the past/present simple? "I joke" "She didn't joke". – Sjb Jul 8 '12 at 13:12
  • +1 for an interesting question. I don't know why two other people have downvoted. – Colin Fine Jul 8 '12 at 14:34
  • @Carlo_R.: Are you sure you mean continuos? – Robusto Jul 8 '12 at 15:28
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    Interestingly and conversely, with jest the simple form is common: I jest, I jest you not, Surely you jest, etc. At least, this seems to be true in the present tense. In the past tense, the continuous form is more likely: I was only jesting, and not I jested . – Shoe Jul 8 '12 at 15:49

The past tense typically describes an action at a particular time in the past. So you might expect to hear, for example, We joked about it at the time, but it was really very serious.

The past continuous construction makes no such link with a particular time, even though we may know in general terms that the action did take place at a particular time. It emphasises the continuing nature of the action, regardless of how long it actually lasted and may sometimes provide a background to something else happening. For example, We were joking about the clothes she was wearing when suddenly she walked in.

In the Madonna incident, She wasn't joking describes her continuing state, however short, in reaction to the colour of the room.

  • 'Madonna incident'? Which one are you talking about? (which incident that is; I guess you're not referring to Jesus' mom) – Mitch Jul 8 '12 at 17:35
  • @Mitch: See Sjb's comment on Paola's answer. – Barrie England Jul 8 '12 at 17:53

I expected to find lots of answers to differenciate Present Simple and Present Continuous, but I've found but a few, and not real duplicates to your question, so I'll try to reply.

According to Michael Swan in his Practical English Usage,

we use the present progressive to talk about temporary actions and situations that are going on now or "around now": before, during and after the moment of speaking.

He also provides the following examples :

Hurry up! We're all waiting for you!

"What are you doing?" "I 'm writing letters."

He then points out :

We do not normally use the present progressive to talk about permanent situations, or about things that happen regularly, repeatedly or all the time. Compare :

  • Look - the cat's eating your breakfast!
  • What do bears eat? - Everything.

There's plenty more examples, but I hope this clarifies your doubts.

  • Thanks but: Madonna was staying in a Hotel. She asked for a different colour room. "She wasn't joking and they painted the room." What is the most concise explanation for why joking is -ing and painted -ed?? thank you. – Sjb Jul 8 '12 at 13:20
  • I'd say that, when Madonna requested a different colour room, she was deadly serious, hence not joking. She might have even threatened the hotel manager to leave the hotel if they did not comply with her request. For this reason, they painted the room a different colour. (And perhaps she smiled with satisfaction while they were painting it). But is this a real event? – Paola Jul 8 '12 at 13:25
  • But in terms of grammar I am a little confused. Would we ever write "She didn't joke". Why not "they were painting the room" – Sjb Jul 8 '12 at 13:30
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    She didn't joke refers to something which happened in the past and so you could find it in sentences such as "She didn't joke (or didn't use to joke) much when she was younger, but now her attitude has changed and she's more light-hearted." And "they were painting" would be used to talk about the action being performed, whereas they painted refers to the consequence or the outcome of Madonna's request. – Paola Jul 8 '12 at 13:38
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    yes thanks again, specifically a habit/state/character in the past. – Sjb Jul 8 '12 at 13:57

I think the answer is that be joking is functionally a different verb from joke.

To joke is to perform an action: that of telling a joke, or saying something funny.

To be joking is to be in a certain mental state, of intending to make people laugh or (more often) to fool people.

They will often go together, but not always. In particular, if you joke, it is usually intended to be obvious to the hearers that that is what you are doing, but if you are joking it may or may not be obvious.

So we may take it for granted that Madonna did not joke (say something obviously and intentionally funny), but somebody may have thought that she was joking (saying something with the intention of amusing or fooling somebody).

  • Many thanks for your answer. That's a convincing explanation. Only how often do we use joke as a verb in this other sense and how often do we simply make a joke. – Sjb Jul 8 '12 at 15:21
  • Good point. I think joke in that sense is a little bit formal or literary. Notice also that joke can be used in the continuous ("He was joking and wisecracking all through the journey") but perhaps for the same reason as you mentioned, it's less common. – Colin Fine Jul 8 '12 at 15:46

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