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Study on expressing present and past routine in English
Sâmbătă, 07 August 2010 15:04

STUDY ON EXPRESSING PRESENT AND PAST ROUTINE IN ENGLISH

 

Prof. Simona PISOI

Colegiul Naţional Carol I, Craiova

 

 

SUMMARY

English has no single verb expressing habitual aspect. Instead, habitual behaviour is indicated in various ways, i.e. by will (predictable or timeless habit), by used to and would (habit in the past), or simply by means of the simple present or past tense, often combined with a temporal adverb (usually, normally, always, etc.).

Key words: habitual aspect, present and past routine, would, used to, present tense, past tense

 

Present Simple used for expressing routine

In this case, the present simple has an unrestrictive (timeless) value: it denotes an action or state that extends over a period of time centred in the present moment. This value covers two subcategories:

One with a generic or universal value: the present simple denotes general truths, states which are regarded as permanent. The actions take place in an unspecified period of time which includes the speaking moment: they exist now, existed in the past and probably will exist in the future:

Water boils at 100 ° C.

The Earth moves round the sun.

If the sun shines all day, it gets hot.

            In these two examples, the verb is timeless; it refers to what is true for all time.

            A second sub value would be that indicating habitualness. The present simple denotes habitual or repeated actions, i.e. actions which happen repeatedly. In the following sentence the Present Simple is used to express a present habit or routine:

She smokes a lot. (She always smokes a lot.)

The dog is always happy when Dad stays home. (Every time Dad stays at home the dog is happy).

Present Continuous could not be used to convey routine because it indicates a present and temporary activity:

She is smoking a lot.  (She doesn’t normally.), but it can express repeated actions that irritate the speaker: He is always telling other people what to do (and he shouldn’t do that). The present continuous is used to express the constant repetition of an event or action permanently characterizing the subject, a habit that annoys or causes a strong feeling of some kind in the speaker. The verb occurs with adverbials of frequency, such as: always, continually, constantly, forever:

The baby is continually crying; I won’t get any sleep.

He is constantly criticizing me no matter what I do.

            The repetition of the action is often stressed by adverbs of frequency: often, seldom, never, every day, etc.; the sentences do not refer to a particular moment of time, nor do they specify a particular event.

We usually go school very early in the morning.

They go to the seaside every summer.

Present continuous indicating habit

The habitual progressive is used with dynamic verb senses to refer to events that repeatedly occur, with the implication that they take place over a limited period of time:

She’s writing some short stories.

He’s teaching in a comprehensive school.

Contrast the non-progressive in the previous examples to the following ones:

She writes short stories.

He teaches in a comprehensive school.

The progressive implies temporariness, whereas the non-progressive implies permanence (‘She’s a short story writer’; ‘He’s a teacher in a comprehensive school’): The normally stative verb have in carries the implication of temporariness, and the initial time adverbial reinforces that notion:

At the time she was having singing lessons.

The habitual progressive is not used to refer to sporadic events (wrong: she’s sometimes walking to the office); the non-progressive is required for this purpose. In combination with the indefinite frequency adverbs such as always and continually, the habitual progressive loses its temporary meaning; it often conveys disapproval: Bill is always working late at the office. The pejorative sense may also be expressed with the simple present or past in combination with these adverbs.

The habitual present perfect simple and continuous

The habitual present perfect is used with dynamic verb senses to refer to past events that repeatedly occur up to and including the present:

The magazine has been published every month (since 1975).

I’ve been reading only science fiction (until now).

Socrates has influenced many philosophers (till now).

 

The present perfect progressive may be used with dynamic verb senses to refer to a temporary habit up to the present. The events occur repeatedly up to the present and possibly into the future:

Martin has been scoring plenty of goals (this season).

I’ve been working on the night shift for several weeks.

 

PAST ROUTINE

 

In order to express repeated actions or states in the past various tenses are used, mainly past tense (accompanied by adverbs expressing frequency), but the verbal forms used (to) and would are also employed. Other forms, was/were in the habit of+ -ing and had the habit of + -ing, also convey the idea of past routine.

 

Past tense

Simple Past expresses completed actions in the past, but it can also be used to describe a habit which stopped in the past. It can have the same meaning as "used to". To make it clear that we are talking about a habit we often use expressions such as always, often, usually, never, ‘...when I was a child’ or ‘...when I was younger’ in the sentence.

I studied French when I was a child.
He played the violin.
He always carried an umbrella.

She worked at the movie theatre after school.
They never went to school, they always skipped.

We had a drive to town every week.

They paid us a visit now and then.

They never drank wine.

            Frequency adverbial phrases play an important role in describing habitual sentences in the past; they are the ones that signal a habitual sentence. Let us consider the following examples taken from Ioana Ştefănescu (1988:272):

John got up at noon”.

John got up at noon every day during his childhood”.

In the first example, the verb in the past tense and the adverbial “at noon” lead to reporting an event which took place in the past, while in the second example “at noon” is part of the frequency adverbial phrase “at noon every day” which clearly indicates the repetition of the event of getting up.

Similarly in the following two sentences: Mary drank a glass of water (non-habitual) and At lunchtime every day, Mary drank a glass of water. So, the existence of a frequency adverb is meant to make clear that the action was habitual, repeated at a (certain) moment in the past.  

           

Used (to)

When we want to show a past habit or a situation that was true in the past but does not exist anymore we use the expression used to. For example:
Mike used to bite his nails. Now he chews his pencil. (past habit)
Bob used to be overweight. Now he is thin. (past situation)
I used to play basketball. (memories)

Let us first make the distinction between the transitive verb use and used to.

Use (past tense and past participle used) is pronounced with a voiced s, and has nothing to do with used to.

When you use this machine, always use protective glasses.

I used a finger nail to scratch a little piece of paint off. 

On the other hand the s in used to is always voiceless.

In the following two sentences the two used to's are completely different.

1. I was used to living alone, so I didn't really mind the lonely life in the Arctic.

He's used to getting his own way, so it's not surprising he was furious when we opposed his plan.

He's not used to having his authority questioned.

She was used to people asking questions during her lectures - in fact she positively encouraged it.

He'll get used to getting up early. He's very adaptable.

 

2. I used to live alone, but I don't now - my brother has joined me.

He used to play a lot of tennis, but he's getting a bit old for it now.

There used to be a coal mine here in the seventies, but it was closed down in the Thatcher years.

It used to be a thriving community, with a sense of solidarity, but that's all gone now.

In 1, used to has the sense of familiar with, be used to (be accustomed to), get used to (get accustomed to), used is adjective in this case, while in the second case, we are faced with a sort of emphatic Past Simple, contrasted with the present (and used is, in this case, a verb[1]). We are interested in this second type which is employed mainly to express habitual actions in the past, repeated actions which are no longer performed:

When I was little, we used to go camping a lot.

When my father was in school, they used to slap children who did not behave.

I used to work days, but now I work the night shift.

They used to live in London, but they no longer live there.

She used to wear a size 6, but she doesn’t anymore.

I used to wear tight jeans (It was my past habit to wear tight jeans.)

In all these examples used to expresses repeated actions in the past, but which are no longer carried out; it expresses a customary action or state in the past which has now ended. One usually uses used to in sentences that contrast the past and the present, because unlike would, used to implies strong contrast with the present. It is often emphasized this contrast by using time expressions such as now, no longer, and not anymore with the present tense.

            Used to is employed to express repeated actions (past habits) which are still performed in the present. Only in this case used to can be replaced by would[2], it is actually more frequently used than used to.

They used to spend their holidays in the mountains.

They would spend their holidays in the mountains (they spent their holidays in the mountains in the past and they still do that). Similarly in:

When I was little, my mother used to read me a story every night.

When I was little, my mother would read me a story every night.

 

Would for habitual actions in the past

Would is used to express a repeated activity, a past habit with the particular sense of ‘characteristic, predictable behaviour’; it is also called the ‘frequentative would’:

We would go to Brighton every summer when I was young.

She would wait for me in front of the school.

We would play chess every evening.

When we were going on a trip we would get up very early.

Would is a more literary form and strongly emphasizes the idea of repeatability of the action, never of state, while used to is characteristic of the spoken language.

Like Used to and Simple Past, Would expresses the idea that something was an old habit which stopped in the past. It says that something was often repeated in the past, but it is not usually done now. With the adverb always, this form suggests that someone willingly acted that way and often expresses annoyance or amusement at the habit. It can also suggest that the habit was extreme.

She would always send me strange birthday gifts.

Sam and Mary would always choose the most exotic vacation destinations.

Sally would always arrive early.

Christine would always come late to the meetings.

            Would is different; it is not exactly the same as Used to or the Simple Past. Would cannot be used to talk about past facts or generalizations. It can only be used for repeated actions. Let us compare the following examples:

Sarah was shy, but now she is very outgoing.

Sarah used to be shy, but now she is very outgoing.

*Sarah would be shy, but now she is very outgoing.

The first two sentences are grammatically correct; they express the idea of repetition in the past contrasted with the present. The last one however is not correct because would cannot be used to express generalizations.

This type of repetition in the past is usually expressed by would; however, other forms are also possible. English speakers often use "would constantly," or "would forever". Although the form "would" is correct, it is often associated with other adverbs because it can easily be confused with other verb forms such as the Conditional or Future in the Past. "Would never" can also be used to express the concept that someone always refused to do something in the past:

Jerry would bring his younger brother to the parties.

Jerry would always bring his younger brother to the parties.

Jerry would constantly bring his younger brother to the parties.

Jerry would never bring his younger brother to the parties. (Opposite meaning: Jerry refused to bring his younger brother with him to the parties.)

In order to describe an activity as habit in the past, would is often accompanied by an adverb, while used to is enough because it has a past time reference by itself. Perkins (1983:51) comments that “the past time morpheme in used to can only correlate with past time reference, whereas would is not thus restricted. The conditional element in would is merely compatible with past time reference and in order for it to be able to bear a past habitual interpretation, there must be a past time index elsewhere in the utterance”. This idea is exemplified in the following two sentences:

I would buy sweets.

I used to buy sweets (used to, even out of the context, indicates a habitual activity in the past, while in the first example, would can do that only if when I was a child is added- in this case, the context indicates a past time axis; otherwise, if the context contains an if-clause, such as ‘If mum gave me money’, the example receives a hypothetical interpretation.

The same idea is rendered by the following examples:

She would give me flowers (every day, always, etc.).

She used to give me flowers. Or:

John would wait for Mary outside the office (every day).

John used to wait for Mary outside the office.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

In order to express repeated actions or states in the past various tenses are used, mainly past tense (accompanied by adverbs expressing frequency), but the verbal forms used (to) and would are also employed. Other forms, was/were in the habit of+ -ing and had the habit of + -ing, also convey the idea of past routine.

The Simple Past expresses completed actions in the past, but it can also be used to describe a habit which stopped in the past. It can have the same meaning as "used to". To make it clear that we are talking about a habit we often use expressions such as always, often, usually, never, ‘...when I was young’, etc. in the sentence. Frequency adverbial phrases play an important role in describing habitual sentences in the past; they are the ones that signal a habitual sentence.

When expressing a past habit or a situation that was true in the past but does not exist anymore the expression used to is employed. Used to expresses repeated actions in the past, but which are no longer carried out; it expresses a customary action or state in the past which has now ended. One usually employs used to in sentences that contrast the past and the present, because unlike would, used to implies strong contrast with the present. It is often emphasized this contrast by using time expressions such as now, no longer, and not anymore with the present tense.

Would is used to express a repeated activity, a past habit with the particular sense of ‘characteristic, predictable behaviour’; it is also called the ‘frequentative would’. Would is a more literary form and strongly emphasizes the idea of repeatability of the action, never of state, while used to is characteristic of the spoken language.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Collins, Peter and Hollo, Carmela English Grammar, Palgrave, New York

Declerck, R. (1991), Tense in English: its structure and use in discourse, Routledge, London, 2000

Giorgi, Alessandra and Fabio Pianesi, Tense and Aspect: From semantics to morphosyntax, Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997

Leviţchi, Leon, Limba engleză contemporană. Morfologie. Editura Didactică şi Pedagogică, Bucureşti, 1970

Thompson, A. J. and Martinet, A.V. A Practical English Grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997



[1] Only the past tense exists and is more common in affirmative statements than in negative statements or questions.

 

[2] Would can replace used to when expressing past routine or pattern, but it cannot replace used to for a discontinued habit.

 

Ultima actualizare în Sâmbătă, 07 August 2010 15:08
 

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