A Cognitive Grammar account of the semantics of the English present progressive

LIN 2014Post written by Astrid De Wit & Frank Brisard based on an article in Journal of Linguistics

It is well known that the progressive in English can be used in a notably wide range of contexts: it may express ongoingness at a specific reference point (Be quiet, please, I’m working), habits with limited duration (I’m eating a lot of chocolate this winter), or futurity (I’m coming home tomorrow), just to name a few. Various studies also note the use of the progressive in so-called “emotional contexts”, in which it indicates, for instance, intensity or irritation (She’s always complaining). In addition, our corpus research shows that the progressive can be used to reinterpret an event previously introduced in discourse, as in He talks about minorities, but he’s really talking about African Americans. Given this notable variety of uses, studies that address the semantics of the English progressive almost invariably refrain from positing one, unifying meaning for the construction. In other words, the various uses of the English progressive are typically considered the result of homonymic coincidence, and the possibility of there being semantically motivated relationships between them is discarded.

On the basis of a study of the use of the English present progressive in the Santa Barbara corpus of American English (part 1), we suggest that a monosemous account of the construction is nevertheless possible, provided that the basic meaning of the construction is conceived of in modal (epistemic) terms rather than in purely aspectual or temporal ones. The theory of Cognitive Grammar, as laid out by Langacker (1987; 1991), provides the tools needed for such an epistemic account. We propose, more specifically, that the English (present) progressive indicates that situations are construed as contingent with respect to the speaker’s conception of reality, and that it thus contrasts with the simple present which construes situations as having a structural status. That is, the simple present involves situations whose occurrence and evolution can be predicted, whereas the progressive involves more phenomenal situations. For instance, in She always complains the subject’s complaining is conceived of as a typical, expected characteristic, whereas in She is always complaining the situation is construed as more atypical, irritating, and possibly (preferably) changeable.

In our paper, we demonstrate that the meaning of epistemic contingency underlies all the uses of the present progressive in English, and that more specific, aspectotemporal uses constitute elaborations of this schematic meaning. We show how these uses are connected to one another and to the schematic meaning of contingency via cognitively motivated branching principles, and summarize our findings in the form of a semantic network.

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