5

It’s well-known that the present simple is used to describe an action which happens regularly and occurs during an infinite period of time (or a finite but quite long one).

He sells cars.

I go to school.

Those are habitual, repeated actions.

But my question is about the cases when it’s used for some series of actions within a relatively short period of time. For example:

Two friends came to a party and found a piano there. One of them comes to it and tries to play something every other ten minutes. (But he can’t really play it.) So, let’s say that having been there for 3 hours the guy tried to play the piano 9 times. The other guy says:

Why do you try to play the piano? It’s obvious you are not a musician.

Do you find this sentence correct in this context?

One native speaker says the following:

If it can reasonably be considered a habitual, repeated action, and you consider it that way, then you would use the tense suited to that idea. You are at risk of someone else having to opinion that those five 'playings' were really just one incident, with rest periods. He would consider your use of the simple past to be strange. but that's just his opinion. If you can logically define the action as 'habitual/repeating', then OK.

Do you agree with it?

Does it mean then, that it would be OK to use it in a context like this:

A person has been chasing another person for the whole day trying to explain themselves, but the other person has been rejecting the former not wanting to talk. Would it be OK to say?

Why do you chase him all day?

Or if I have called someone today 10 times already:

You call him a lot. Why do you call him so much?

Any ideas?

4

We would not use the simple present in either of these scenarios. The simple present indicates, as you say, habitual action, action which is consistently performed over an indefinitely long period, and neither of these qualifies. They are rather actions which have been repeated over a definite period, and there is no likelihood that the repetition will be continued indefinitely.

In the first instance, we would probably use the ‘chaining’ verb keep, which expresses precisely the repeated action you describe:

Why do you keep trying to play the piano?

In the second we might use the same expression, “Why do you keep chasing him all day?” In this case, however, it appears that you are really asking for an explanation of the action up to the current time rather than trying to discourage further repetition. If that is the case, we would probably use the progressive perfect:

Why have you been chasing him all day?

Note that we would not use the keep expression with all day, which in this context can only mean “all day up until now”. If you mean “all day including what is left of the day”, you would have to employ a futurive construction, which does not suit well with why:

Are you going to keep chasing him all day?

Likewise, any of these might be employed for your final example:

Why do you keep calling him? OR
Why have you been calling him? OR
Do you intend to keep calling him?

  • +1 for pointing out how we use keep in such contexts (I was trying to make the same point in the answer I've now discarded after seeing yours before I posted). I'd also add the further clarification that in general, "Why do you [verb]?" (without "keep") is only used where [verbing] is a continuous, ongoing process that started before the current "conversational context", and may be expected to continue after it. To some extent, OP's habitual, repeated action justification is misleading here. – FumbleFingers Sep 11 '13 at 16:48
  • Ta! How would you explain the usage of the PS in this context? "The Republicans were a laugh line throughout the night, especially the presidential field that was, at the same time, holding its 17th debate in North Charleston, South Carolina. "Why do you laugh?" the president deadpanned at one point, to more laughs. "They're running for president"" I think Obama should have said "Why r u laughing?" But he used the PS. Why is it so? – user1425 Sep 12 '13 at 13:19
  • @user1425 This do use is a survival from the 17th century which remains in use for "rhetorical" questions like this. Note that it refers only to the audience's single instance of laughter in response to an immediately preceding joke, not to their repeated hilarity throughout the night. – StoneyB Sep 12 '13 at 14:17
  • Is it only used for "rhetorical" questions? I think in the following example it is not a "rhetorical" question. "She had no sooner said it than she burst into a dry hard sobbing, so violent that it seemed to rend her. Tess was not a hysterical girl by any means, and he was surprised. "Why do you cry, dearest?"" by Thomas Hardy. Is it an oudated usage? Is it OK to talk this way nowdays? "I can't tell--quite!-- – user1425 Sep 12 '13 at 15:04
  • @user1425 Tess of the D'Urbervilles was published in 1891 and is set a generation earlier; the speaker here is of the very conservative rural gentry; and in Hardy's day polite society affected (or was at least conventionally depicted as affecting) a very formal style of discourse. This may or may not have been the way people actually spoke at the time; it is certainly not the way they speak now. – StoneyB Sep 12 '13 at 15:35

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