If you’re an English grammar aficionado – and even if you’re not – brace yourself, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Actually, I think you should sit down for this; I’m going to break it to you in stages. You’re already sitting down? OK, you might want to clench your buttocks or squeeze an executive stress toy. Are you ready? Here we go:
Everything you know about the present continuous is wrong.
That’s the first part. I’m afraid it gets worse:
All English grammar books are going to have to be pulped and rewritten.
I don’t know about you but I’m starting to hyperventilate … Now for the final blow:
It’s all Justin Timberlake’s fault.
Yes, Justin ‘it was a wardrobe malfunction’ Trousersnake, one time squeeze of La Spears and ex-Out-of-Sync boy band botherer is single-handedly responsible for shifting the tectonic plates of the present continuous, as well as shifting a fair few burgers.
Why? Well, cast your mind back to Christmas 2003 when McDonald’s chose Timberlake’s street-language-infused ditty I’m Lovin’ It as the song and slogan for their latest global advertising campaign. Warning – this clip might make you cringe!
Why is this embarrassing drivel significant? Well, any English language professional worth their salty fries knows that you can’t, you just cannot use stative verbs in the present continuous. It’s, like, against the law. You want proof? May I refer you to the bible of English language teachers everywhere, Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage (Section 445, sub-section 8, p. 462) which clearly states that the sentence I’m liking this wine is wrong, an error, no can say. Ergo I’m lovin’ this revolting mess hastily assembled in something masquerading as a sesame bap is also erroneous, in more ways than one. And hey, while we’re at it, Raymond Murphy’s Essential Grammar in Use (that’s Unit 8, section D, p. 24, grammar fans) is pretty categorical too:
We do not use these verbs in the present continuous: like, love, want, know, understand, remember, depend, prefer, hate, need, mean, believe, forget …
Alright Raymond, calm down, love! You see, English teachers the world over all thought they knew where they stood with stative verbs and the present continuous. The two could not peaceably co-exist. Received wisdom has always been that verbs that describe mental and emotional states are non-progressive i.e. you can’t stick –ing on the end of them without sounding like a foreign exchange student in an anorak and bobble hat asking passers-by on Westminster Bridge: Hallo! I’m needing to know the way to Big Ben. Are you knowing this?
Of course, it’s too late, the damage has been done. It’s been nearly six years since Mr Trousersnake and his accomplice Ronald McDonald rode roughshod over decades of cast-iron grammatical certainty, not to mention showing a woeful disregard for the mental health of Raymond Murphy.
The expression (I’m) lovin’ it, along with its cousins I’m likin’ it and I’m feelin’ it have now calcified within the English language, although I’m understandin’ it and I’m knowin’ it haven’t really caught on, have they?
So what do we think? Can anyone in their right mind say I’m lovin’ it without following it up with ‘ba, da, ba, ba ba!’ and thinking of Timbers making sweet love to a beautiful laydee on a bed of dollar bills and cheeseburger wrappers? Do you find yourself saying lovin’ it to your friends and colleagues, instead of the patently old-fashioned love it? What’s the verdict – I’m lovin’ it – acceptable or naff?
I’ve both read (in magazines) and heard people use “I’m /we’re lovin’ X[add whatever you will]”. It’s a meaningful multi-word unit with pragmatic function to boot, but I’d consider variants (liking / hating etc.) as precisely that: variants which depend on knowledge of the “norm”. So let’s say that it’s become a fixed expression, not a new grammar rule… so no need to revise your language descriptions (yet), guys.
I’m loving your post.
I’m feeling you too, as it’s tough to go with the flow when your entire being naturally cringes at bad/newly accepted forms of grammar… You’re hatin’ on this comment right now, ain’t ya?
I’m understandin’ yer Laine, glad that yer feelin’ me, but have to say I’m just preferrin’ the present simple. I’m just not likin’ speakin’ like I’m pretendin’ like I’m hip and street…
Seriously, I don’t really mind using stative verbs in this way. I actually said ‘Likin’ yer new barnet!’ to my Mum a couple of weekends ago when she came back from the hairdresser’s. How ghetto is that! So I’m not against it. In fact, warping the present continuous in this way just emphasises the emotion in question doesn’t it? Saying ‘Likin it’ rather than ‘I like it’ just stresses the fact that, at that precise moment in time, you are in the midst of feeling the emotion of appreciating your mother’s new hair extensions.
I am not believing that it’s been six years since that advert!
I don’t think the whole present continuous rule will have to be rewritten, just a few words deleted from the verbs that you cannot add -ing to. Sadly, I am often loving the wine that I drink!
It all depends. What does ‘naff’ mean?
So the present continuous rule is dead…
How about the 3rd conditional?
The first line of this Willie Nelson song (cover version here) must have grammarians all over the place pulling chunks of hair out.
And all for the need to scan.
Is it my imagination or do a lot of EFL authors (like Murphy) prohibit things for beginners just for the sake of making a concept a little easier to get one’s head around?
Actaully, I don’t think it’s just my imagination.
I think I can remember “you’re hating life” being used as far back as, say, 1987 (in California). Does anybody else remeber this phrase going back that far?
I wouldn’t be too hard on Murphy and Swan. What they’re giving is a pretty useful guideline which is true most of the time and which will help learners avoid sounding unnatural. But the problem is that they present it as if it’s a cast-iron’rule’ of English grammar – which it definitely isn’t. Two points : (1) as far as i know (but i could be wrong) their books are not based on corpus data, and as soon as you look at a corpus you can find numerous examples of stative verbs in progressive (continuous) forms, such as:
F. Murray Abraham is as believable as the old Salieri who is remembering the past , as he is as the young composer.
Many institutions are preferring to take up the ‘licence to use’ option which allows multi-copying.
(Arguably, in cases like these the verbs aren’t truly ‘stative’ anyway.)
(2) In many varieties of English, the ‘rule’ doesn’t apply nearly so often. Scottish and Irish speakers will say things like ‘I’m needing some help with this’, and in Indian English, it’s common to find be+understanding, knowing, preferring, believing, and so on.
Yikes, I’m fogetting the time – better stop here
I’m mostly just lovin’ your writing style Sarah… witty, charming, spot on, topical… oh, and the Willie Nelson song which has totally distracted me from the rest of wot I wanted to say.
Totally agree with you, Karenne. I think it might also have to do with cultural changes…I mean, verbs that describe mental and emotional states…how static really *are* our emotions these days? Justin just foresaw society’s fear of commitment, guys.
I’m pretty sure I heard “to feel” (probably in the use of “I’m feeling that” or “I’m so not feeling that”) being used in the present progressive before “to love” and that McDonalds ad. Is it something that has been knocking around in dialect grammar for a while, do you think?
I always thought only the Indian McDonalds ads had “I’m loving it” as their tagline as ing anything is very Indian English.
The rather detailed description of the foreign exchange student described here sounds like an Indian to me and beING and Indian I am a bit offended. Don’t all countries have their own English quirks? Who decides what is “good” or “correct” English when the way it is spoken differs from country to country?
Looks like this website has acknowledged Global English – a nice and often complicated mixture of British, American, Australian, Indian, Chinese and Jamaican and many other ‘Englishes.’
The key point should be about understandING what the other person is sayING – as long as you get that JT is crying a river, or that the exchange student wants to see the Big Ben …who cares.
Not surprised, language is dynamic.
Wonder what McLovin would think. Superbad!
Just an example of ‘Spoken English’ versus ‘Prescriptive Grammar’. Language surely is dynamic! I’m lovin’ it! 😀
I saw here:
that McDonald’s also has awful corporate tranlators working in Brazil! In Argentina they use (Me encanta todo eso: I love all that) which sounds nonsensical and stupid in Spanish. I’m assuming it sounds the same in Brazil?
Hi, good to read. The song “Still loving you” by the Scorpions in the 80’s was already a pain for English teachers.
Unfortunately, I can assure you I remember the song much better than what a “stative” verb is 🙂
Don’t blame Justin or Ronald. Not even the Scorpions.
It’s all the Rezillos’ fault!
I Like It (1978)
I like it!
I like it!
I like the things you do and all the things you say!
and I like it more when everyday
and I like it always hearing you say
you’re liking it too!
you’re liking it too!
I SAID IT LIKE IT!! ARE YOU LIKING IT TOO!?
CAN’T STAND THE REZILLOS!
And they’re Scottish, not American
Hey, this is good news for Brazilians. In Portuguese we all say I’m loving, I’m feeling, I’m hating, and especially, I’m wanting (as I feel like). We tell students over and over again not to do it, but it does not work. I remember when I was in London and my boss asked me if I had finished one job and I said: I am finishing it. He then told me ” You can not say that. The correct way is , I am about to finish”. So . . .
My first post here. I want to correct JPersico. I’m from Argentina and here McDonalds uses “Me encanta” and it absolutely does make sense. I’ve always wondered whether this international food chain was looking for an “M” for their slogan and they found it in “I’M lovin’ it!”
Anyway, glad to participate. I’m believing I’ll be back!!
I think that the use of loving can be acceptable if a comment is made on the spot, ex. at golden arches while eating that cheeseburger.
@ Juan Carlos
I was actually referring to the entire phrase “me encanta todo eso”, the last part of which (“toodo eso”) I’m sure you’ll also find to be a painfully awkward translation of “i love all that”.
I’ve already come across “I’ve been wanting a new car for a few weeks already” and “I’m not understanding you”. If my memory serves me right, I spotted the first example in one of D. Larsen-Freeman articles on grammar and its teaching. I heard the second one from an American college professor when we were trying to agree on the time and place to meet. She implied that she couldn’t actually make out when and where we’d finally meet. As a non-native speaker and a teacher of English, I was shocked to hear that!
Now I think if there are more and more cases of “bending the law”, it’s high time new rules were accepted. If verbs can be dynamic, why can’t grammar itself be as dynamic as possible? By just denying this fact, we’ll make both natives and foreigners confused. And one more thing: forbidden fruit is always sweet…
Speaking also as a NNS of English and an EFL Teacher, I have to say I don’t feel all that confused or shocked. If we accept that one of the uses we put language to is that of expressing ourselves, then -to me- it makes perfect sense to make certain “traditionally static” verbs dynamic simply because I have the need to convey my message as a process rather than a finished product: in Helen’s first example, for instance. the way I see it, I have at least two choices as a speaker: I can project a context in which the most important thing is that I have a desire to get a new car (static), or focus on how often/long I’ve thought about getting a new car.
This reminds me of a debate related to labelling people. I suppose it took place in the context of politcal correctness issues. So then it was suggested, and generally agreed upon, that it was preferable to say “You’re being X” as opposed to “You are X”, precisely because that put the stress on the behaviour rather than a more permanent personal trait. (I may not recollect the debate accurately enough though).
My point is that there seems to be a gap in language for the need to express process or continutity in certain areas, and users of the language seem to agree that using static verbs progressively does the trick to fill that gap. I suppose that is one of the ways language changes over time.
I think yer all (most) tak (ing?) this too seriously.
Well, that’s a load off my mind. I’ve been teaching English in Spain for about ten years and when that whole McDonald /J.Timberlake thing came up I would hold my breath as I taught present continuous, just dreading/waiting for a student to interrupt my explanation at that particular stative verb exception and say: Buy hey, what about “I’m loving it”? Time to celebrate!
A footnote to Emilio’s comment on November 24, 2009 at 7:46 pm:
This song ‘I like it’ was first recorded by Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963, and was a number one hit in the UK. It was written by Mitch Murray, an Englishman.
Thank you Jonathan!
So this goes back at least as far as 1963!
Ha – so that’s why I wasn’t all that shocked when I noticed the McDonald’s ad going against yet another grammar rule – used to be a big fan of that kind of music (already called ‘oldies’ at that time!) when I was young and remember the song quite well, actually.
Unit One of Advance Grammar in Use (Cambridge) makes it quite clear that using stative verbs in the continuous form can be useful. See the unit for a few good examples.
Advanced Grammar in Use in the correct title.
Interesting and entertaining article, but actually the first recorded usage of “loving it” according to corpora was in 1917. also liking and even knowing have been used for centuries (check out historic corpora) (1803 and 1830-something)! but undoubtedly McD and Timberlake have helped its advance, as have we all by simply using it more and more. I think the important point to make though is that since we’re moving away from prescriptive grammar books and more towards corpus based linguistics we find many things that were taught as wrong are actually widely used by proficient speakers (yes I mean “native” speakers as well). So it’s not only a change in language usage, but actually grammar books etc catching up with how English is actually being used. So is it all Justin Timberlake’s fault? No, I don’t think so and even McGrease are not the real culprits, but they are merely part of the very natural process of changing language.
Still, a very entertaining article, thanks!
Is McDonald’s slogan (I’m lovin’ it) really grammatically incorrect?
The slogan uses a grammatical form that is not correct (in proper British English). When I say not correct, I do not mean “not in popular usage”. All languages are evolving entities, the English we speak now is nothing like early English in form and…