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Grammatically Speaking, June 2005

by Richard Firsten

Hello, Richard.

I am getting the following terms mixed up: demonstratives, pronouns, determiners, and proforms. My understanding is that demonstratives can function as pronouns or as determiners. For example, as pronouns: That's incredible. or These (pancakes sitting here on my plate) are delicious.

Where do proforms fit in here? To me, both this and these also look like proforms because they take the place of entire clauses. What am I missing?

Frieda Lepp Kaethler
Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada

Dear Frieda,

You're not missing much at all. The term proform is basically an umbrella term for lots of things, such as the parts of speech. Proforms are used as substitutes, as you've demonstrated, usually taking the place of noun phrases, not clauses. But proforms also include such substitutes as there (I haven't been to New York in a long time. You've beenthere recently, haven't you?) and so (I'm planning to open a personal retirement account, but I haven't done so yet).

I hope that clarifies this term for you, Frieda. Thanks for the question.

Hi, Richard.

I hope you can explain something I came across while I was having my students do a listening cloze exercise for a popular song (Kylie Minogue, "Love at First Sight," which uses a lot of past tense). The song goes

Thought that I was going crazy...,
Didn't know what to do,
Then there was you.

The students were happily listening and filling in irregular past forms when one of them asked, "Why 'there was you'? Why not 'were you'?" I couldn't readily explain it, except to say that there (introductory there--not the adverb of place) only uses was or were (third person). As to why this is, I couldn't say much, except that an indefinite noun follows there, and the third person is consistent with that. Second person can't be indefinite, I would think.

I recall the song from The Music Man, "Till There Was You," does this as well. What do you think? Thank you!

Linda Rousos
Tucson, AZ USA

Dear Linda,

Good to hear from you again--and with such an interesting question! You had the right "instincts" about the use of was instead of were. This use of unstressed there is referred to as the existential there because the phrase there is/are communicates that something exists. The phrase is usually used to introduce an indefinite noun phrase that contains some new information or observation (There are some men waiting to see you), but it can be used for more definite subjects (There are three men waiting to see you).

To make it simple for your students, just tell them that (existential) there is always used with the third-person form of its accompanying verb. And you might want to mention that verbs besides be can be used with existential there: appear, exist, follow, remain, and seem.

Thanks for the great question, Linda!


I was extremely pleased by the number of responses to the Forum topic I raised in my March 2005 column, and I was impressed by the diversity of thought on this subject. I asked,

At least in American English, the strict rule that certain verbs can be used only in the simple present or simple past is changing to allow them to be used in the progressive (continuous) aspect.

Here are some cases in point: The currently favored slogan used in McDonald's commercials and ads is "I'm lovin' it." I've recently heard people say, for example, "They've been wanting a new house for a long time," "We're having to explain more than we'd like to," and "He's been needing to get a couple of root canals."

What do you think about those four sentences? Do you consider them acceptable or not? If you do, why? If you don't, why not?

Following is a selection of readers' responses (edited due to space constraints).

They're Acceptable, or Sometimes Acceptable

Some readers are comfortable with this use of the progressive form, and some are comfortable with it only sometimes:

I thought I had just been living in New Orleans for too long--there are a lot of things people say here that aren't really standard English, and a frequent case is the continuous. The first three sound acceptable--isn't there an old blues song that says something like "I've been lovin' you too long to stop now"? The most common, unorthodox use of the continuous in New Orleans is "I've been knowing him for a long time"--which still doesn't sound quite right to my Yankee ears.--Lia Kushnir, University of New Orleans, LA USA

These sentences are fine. They are just expanding the use of certain verbs into already existing structures. I think the origin of this usage is in what William Labov called BEV (Black English Vernacular) or what is often referred to today as Ebonics. If you look at Labov's Language in the Inner City, pp. 69-72, you can find some examples of this extension of usage. And this book was published in 1972! So the usage with like, love, and need isn't new. What's new is their use in what I will call general standard English (a problematic concept).--Christine F. Houck, Philadelphia, PA USA

I propose that we allow for the evolution of the language. In and out of my professional life, I've heard the arguments for preserving the "purity" of our language over and over again, but ... Of the four sentences, I would routinely use the second and sometimes the fourth. Perhaps the usage is somewhat regional. I have not seen the McDonald's commercial in question, so I don't know the context for the first. The third I would use only for the immediate past. However, I think we have bigger fish to fry and can let all four go.--name withheld

Of course these are acceptable forms. I don't believe that this is a new phenomenon--it just so happens that ESL teachers are taking notice of this now. After all, the man sang many years ago, "I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you." The verb structures in English are subtle--continuous tenses and simple tenses play very specific roles that are difficult to explain if you insist on teaching your students strict, hard-and-fast rules. ESOL teachers need to break free from thinking that these types of "rules" are going to do anything more than give their students an incomplete understanding of the varied and nuanced verb usages of native speakers.--Rebecca Oreto, Pittsburgh, PA USA

1) "I'm lovin' it" doesn't bother me as a slogan, but I haven't heard it used in regular conversation, so I consider it simply poetic license at this point. I learned that the general acceptance of a change is based on whether or not educated people use it as a preferred change to the old rule. Since that doesn't happen, I would correct any student who used it outside of the context of a fast-food-related experience.
2) [The other sentences] all carry an affect that is intense. I've also heard educated people use it when they want to intensify. I approve of both.--Nina Howard, Adrian, MI USA

I think the increased use of progressive forms for traditionally stative verbs is fascinating. It shows an awareness of some "states" as temporary. All the sentences you listed make perfect sense to me, at least in a conversational setting.--Anrisa Fannin, Pleasant Hill, CA USA

My opinion of these new, albeit nonstandard, expressions is that they just reflect the language of "the people." There are new expressions every day, and we can't refuse them admittance into our culture. I think that informal settings allow informal uses of the language ("I'm lovin' it"), but formal situations require the "standard forms" to be used. After all, language is not a rigid construct, but a flexible one.--Kathy Malizia, Tampa, FL USA

The use of those verbs in continuous tenses has been common in central and southern Illinois and in Missouri for quite some time. When I teach stative (nonaction) verbs to my classes, I indicate to them what they will hear when speaking to Americans from this area. I also teach them the correct form, to be used in written English, since most of my students are studying for the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test] or GRE [Graduate Record Examinations], where they would most likely NOT encounter verbs such as like, love, and want in continuous tenses.--Nancy A. Price, Missouri, USA

I'd say three of the four sentences are acceptable.
1) "They've been wanting..." sounds like "They've been longing for..." To me, the use of the progressive emphasizes the unremitting nature of their desire for a new house!
2) "We're having to..." suggests a temporary situation.
3) "He's been needing to get a couple of root canals." This tells me he hasn't had the root canals yet; the need still exists.
4) Now we come to, "I'm lovin' it." Do I hate this just because of the McDonald's connection? I don't think so. It sounds like Hollywood agent-speak to me. It's an affectation--it doesn't add any layer of meaning other than, "Look at me breaking the rules. Aren't I creative?"--Linda Butler, Leeds, MA USA

I've heard sentences like this for years, first from someone who hailed from S. Carolina, and over the years from folks who live in a lot of different places in the US. I now use a similar construction myself rather frequently in conversational speech.--Diane Cotsonas, Salt Lake City, UT USA

They're Not at All Acceptable

Some readers reject the use of the progressive form in question:

As an EFL teacher in Israel, I have great difficulty explaining to my Hebrew-speaking students about the progressive tense, since it does not exist in Hebrew. I don't dare introduce your exceptions, which would only confuse them. If we come across such examples, I tell them that this is typical street language or it is acceptable in advertising to break the rules. My students must take standardized tests. I'm sure these forms would be considered mistakes. These forms grate on my ear and sound like "uneducated English."--Razelle Weiss, Beer Sheva, Israel

These sentences need to be analysed in terms of the context they appear in. Personally I think it goes against the economy-in-language principle to use the continuous forms here, and the sentences sound completely ungrammatical to me.--Cahide Çavuþoðlu, Ankara, Turkey

George Orwell was in despair about the atrocious deterioration of English of his days. Is that what we are facing now? Just because in an advertisement someone misuses the tenses, just because someone "is wanting" something, does that mean that that sort of English is acceptable? People may speak English in any way they like, but this does not mean that it should be acceptable and correct English.-- Necla Çýkýgil, Ankara, Turkey

McDonald's might be lovin' it, but this English professor certainly is not. I go by the book, not by some ad slogan. Stative verbs cannot be used in the progressive aspect. Such "ads R" wrong ... [Betty] Azar's right!--Carol Amster, Boca Raton, FL USA

Thanks to everybody who participated in the Forum, the first of many I hope to feature in Grammatically Speaking. Your insights and the diversity of your opinions have made this a truly interesting experience for me and, I hope, for you.

I share many of your opinions on this topic. I used to be quite the reactionary, especially in my early years of teaching, frowning at each and every deviation from the standard English grammar I taught to ESOL students because that's what was in their grammar book. Most of the readers who responded feel quite comfortable using the progressive form with stative verbs, although many maintain that it's less formal than using the simple present, which is what English teachers traditionally teach.

I also agree that language shouldn't be considered cut-and-dried. There is standard language, nonstandard language, and substandard language, and there's a time and a place for all three. Since my early years in TESOL, I have tried to avoid dismissing a grammatical construction I hear out of hand just because it's not what I might say.

I especially liked the points brought up by Rebecca Oreto and Nina Howard. Rebecca reminded me of the lyrics to a popular American song from the 1940s: "I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you." I've known that song all my life, yet it never crossed my mind how "ungrammatical" that line is--or is it?

Nina offered this view: "I learned that the general acceptance of a change is based on whether or not educated people use it as a preferred change to the old rule." That seems to be true, especially because English doesn't have an organization like the French Academy or the Royal Spanish Academy. If enough educated people use a new form on a regular basis, especially in the written language above the level of a comic book, it should be considered an acceptable variation.

So keep an open mind to how language evolves. Do I like hearing I'm lovin' it or He's wanting to change his appointment? No, so I'll sit back and wait to see if the majority of educated speakers start to use such grammar regularly. If they do, I'll reconsider--and you might want to as well.

Brain Teaser

  1. It's okay to say I saw him leave.
  2. It's also okay to say I saw him leaving.
  3. It's okay to say I heard her sneeze.
  4. And it's okay to say I heard her sneezing.

Sentences 1 and 3 have base-verb direct object companions (DOCs), leave and sneeze, and Sentences 2 and 4 have -ing verb DOCs, leaving and sneezing. What exactly does each DOC mean?

Please e-mail your responses to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33179 USA

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