The Development of the Progressive in English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)




1. The progressive: A synchronic approach
1.1 The present day progressive
1.2 The main meanings and the functions of the progressive
1.3 Other meanings
1.4 The Progressive in other languages than English (locative aspect)

2. The progressive: A diachronic approach
2.1 Progressive Sources
2.2 Progressive in Old English
2.3 Progressive in Middle English


Selected Bibliography, Sources


In order to present a comprehensive and all-embracing picture of a linguistic phenomenon like the “progressive” it is important to provide an analysis of the problem from both a synchronic and a diachronic point of view.

Following this rule the subsequent paper is divided into two main parts.

In the beginning I will try to give a global picture of the progressive form in English as it is used today and I will focus on its meaning and basic functions as well as on its separation from other linguistic states.

The second section of this paper is devoted to the historical sources of the English progressive diachronically emerging from Old English over Middle English and Early Modern English into the progressive taught in modern grammars and school books.

I do have to mention though that, since I am not a student of Old English or Middle English, my abilities in reading and understanding certain sources and interpretations are limited.

In the process of this work I have tried to use secondary sources on Old and Middle English rather than primary sources and I have also tried to leave out most references or citations to primary sources.

Nevertheless I believe that, in this paper, I can prove and demonstrate that the English progressive form used nowadays is derived diachronically and directly from Old English.

I will present authors who support this view as well as others who oppose it.

As my main source I would like to mention Johannes Scheffer[1], Bybee et al.[2],Susan Fitzmaurice[3], Eva Edgren[4] and Debra Ziegeler[5].

1. The progressive: A synchronic approach

1.1 The present day progressive

The progressive is one of those subtle grammatical distinctions that ‘even five-year-old children maintain flawlessly’ if they happen to be native speakers of English. To give an adequate description of it which will enable foreign learners of the language to use it correctly is another thing.[6]

With these lines Johannes Scheffer opens his voluminous discussion about the nature and the history of the progressive. In 1974 he tried to give an extensive overview about the progressive’s usage and its development.

In the process of this term paper I will try to go along his lines in order to present a comprehensive picture of the progressive’s meaning and functions:

The most satisfactory description will be one which assigns a basic meaning to the progressive and subsequently accounts for distinct separate uses as derived from the basic meaning.[7]

It is not possible to “account” for all these uses of the progressive mentioned in Scheffer’s work with this paper. Nevertheless I will try to focus on most of the basic meanings and also provide analysis from other authors over the next chapters.

In the beginning I would also like to give the structure of the progressive: He is singing, would be a perfect example for the present progressive. Basically it is composed of two parts: a form of the auxiliary “to be” (present tense, past tense, present perfect tense, etc.) plus the present participle of the main verb of the sentence (base of the verb + ing). Accordingly, other examples for the progressive would be He was singing, He has been singing, He had been singing, He will be singing, etc.

A special form of the progressive which is today seen as an own grammatical construction is the “going-to” future as in: He is going to sing or even in a doubled occurrence He is going to be singing. According to Scheffer in 1974 this is still a form of the progressive, nevertheless most linguists today agree that due to its high frequency and future aspect it must be seen as a separate construction not to be included into a paper about the progressive. In Middle English and Early Modern English this might have been different. Even in Shakespeare we can find progressive forms similar to He is going to see his sister with a clear locational meaning in the sense that He went somewhere to see his sister.[8] Since most scholars do not see the “going-to” construction as part of the progressive anymore, I will leave it out. It is a good example though to show how grammaticalisation works and it is one string of the diachronical development of the progressive.

1.2 The main meanings and the functions of the progressive

There has always been much discussion how to define the grammatical construction nowadays named by the progressive. Also, there is plenty of literature featuring the subject. As Eva Edgren puts it:

There is an abundance of literature on the progressive in English from the 19th century onwards, not least during the last 10-20 years, and we now know a great deal about its functions in various contexts, even tough, regrettably, this knowledge has not so far been fully incorporated in current grammars.[9]

She continues that there is still some uncertainty about the “real nature”[10] of the progressive, nevertheless most linguists today agree that “its basic function is to mark imperfective aspect”[11] which separates the progressive from perfective tenses.

Other authors like Scheffer, quoting himself various linguists, stress duration, “limited duration”[12] or the “durative aspect”[13] as the most prominent features of the English progressive:

The progressive forms are mainly used to imply an aspect of duration and continuity and to show that a happening is thought of as being in progress and occupying a limited time.[14]

The durational aspect of the progressive can also imply that the terminal point of an action is postponed. One good example is be the verb ”to drown”. In the sentence: ”He drowned” there is nothing we can do in order to change the situation. The person is dead, drowned. It is a bare fact. On the other hand when we use the progressive as in: “He was drowning” we can still grasp a certain movement. The terminal point has not been reached yet and might never be reached at all. You could easily add to the phrase: “but he was rescued at the last moment.”[15]

If we take duration as the basic function of the progressive it leaves out certain constructions and we encounter questions about the durative aspect of sentences like: She’s always breaking things, where there is some sense of “sporadic repetition”[16] as F.R. Palmer puts it.

Also, many linguists stress the “emotional use” and the “dynamic character”[17] of the progressive which are both not accounted for by saying the progressive implies only duration.

And, as well, there is an aspect of futurity in phrases like: Is Jack working tomorrow night?[18]

If we accept duration as the primary meaning of the progressive we do have to explain secondary functions and therefore one early conclusion of this paper is that “duration” does consequently not cover all the facts about the English progressive.[19]


[1] Johannes Scheffer. The progressive in English (Amsterdam: Univ. Diss., 1974).

[2] Joan Bybee et al. The evolution of grammar - tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world (Chicago et al: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994) 125-175.

[3] Susan Fitzmaurice. “Grammaticalisation, Textuality and Subjectivity: The Progressive and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, The virtues of language – History in Language, Linguistics and Texts, ed. Dieter Stein and Rosanna Sornicola (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1998) 21-50.

[4] Eva Edgren. “The progressive in English: Another New Approach”, Studia Linguistica 39 (1985) 67-83.

[5] Debra Ziegeler. “Agentivity and the history of the English progressive”, Transactions of the Philological Society 97:1 (1999) 51-101

[6] Scheffer. 17

[7] Van Ek in Scheffer.17

[8] Cf. Scheffer. 270 ff.

[9] Edgren. 67

[10] Edgren. 67

[11] Edgren. 67

[12] Scheffer. 21

[13] Scheffer. 21

[14] Scheurweghs in Scheffer. 21

[15] Edgren.68

[16] Palmer in Scheffer. 23

[17] Kruisinga-Erades and Zandvoort in Scheffer. 23

[18] Scheffer. 23

[19] CF. Scheffer. 23

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The Development of the Progressive in English
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistics Institute)
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
487 KB
Development, Progressive, English, Tense-Aspect-Mood
Quote paper
Sebastian Goetzke (Author), 2003, The Development of the Progressive in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Development of the Progressive in English

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free