The other day I was given an answer:

In your sentence I would use give, give does mean a present, a gift

I was going to give you another book

Here is a warning: I am listening for the 'but' at the end of that because of the 'was'.

I was going to give you another book, but Judy said your reading pile is already a year long

The sentence with "listen for" struck me as odd. It sounds as if the person is listening for the "but" right now. I'd at least say:

The sentence left me listening for the "but".

Or rather:

The sentence left me with the feeling that there must be some sort of continuation. That it was cut off in the middle. So here's the—one might say—full version:

I'm not saying that the original sentence is incorrect. I'm trying to understand why it's okay to put the idea that way. Can you explain?

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    I don't understand your confusion. Your paraphrase is probably about right - but it is not any kind of lnguistic transformation of the original. It is a conclusion, based on knowledge of how people react to things.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 23:35
  • @ColinFine Can you possibly transform it? Maybe there's some part that is missing, but implied? To me it sounds like the person was listening for the "but," as they were writing the answer. Not like it left them with a feeling of an unfinished sentence. And then they started to write the answer.
    – x-yuri
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 0:18
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    "listening for" in this context means "expecting." The idea is that you think you know how the sentence will end and you are listening for confirmation. Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 1:44
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    I did not mean that "listen" is in general a synonym of "expect." I said "in context." The general point of the passage is that "was going to give" implies that the gift did not occur; otherwise what would be said is "gave." Thus, we expect to be told why that intent changed or was frustrated. That would typically be introduced with "but." Because we expected that continuation, we would listen for it. Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 14:36
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    The only thing that is different about those two sentences—aside from additional clarifying information that can never be wrong—is that one sentence uses I am listening for while the other uses the sentence left me listening for. But that is not a meaningful distinction. Both are grammatical, idiomatic, and understandable. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 13:50

2 Answers 2


First I'll explain the relevant sense of for in other contexts, and then I'll explain why the sentence that you found odd makes sense.

"Looking for", "listening for", etc.

Here are some similar uses of for. From your comments, it sounds like you already understand listen for, but I'm providing these just to be sure.

I reached for my keys on the dresser when I woke up, but they weren't there. I spent an hour looking for my keys until I remembered that I left them in my coat pocket last night.

A doctor can apply a stethoscope to a patient's abdomen and listen for gurgling sounds. If there is only silence, the doctor will know that there is a possible blockage. [Source: Take Five Minutes by Ruth Foster (2001), slightly edited.]

Woodpeckers are thought to listen for insects, and owls rely on sound when hunting their prey. [Source: Creating a Bird-Watcher's Journal by Claire Walker Leslie and Charles Roth (1999).]

I've been standing here waiting for a bus for twenty minutes now.

These all indicate directing attention toward finding something decided or imagined in advance, by looking, listening, reaching, etc. The same idea occurs in phrases like "looking for a job".

Your example

Suppose that you are sitting indoors and you hear the squeal of tires against asphalt outside, suggesting that the driver of a car on the road outside has just slammed on the brakes to avoid an accident. Most likely, you then listen for the sound of a crash or an impact, because you know that that is likely to happen next, and you are interested to know if an accident occurs and, if so, how bad it is.

"I was going to _____" very often is the first half of a sentence where the second half explains why I did not _____. For example:

I was going to cook breakfast, but we were out of eggs.

I was going to marry him, until I discovered that he was wanted for assault and battery in four states.

I was going to give you a copy of Waiting for Godot, but then I remembered that you hate surrealism.

So, when we hear "I was going to _____," we are primed to next hear a conjunction introducing the part of the sentence that explains why _____ didn't happen. That's what listening for or waiting for meant in WendyG's answer.

Present continuous

If you are wondering why she wrote in the present continuous tense, "I am listening for the 'but' at the end of that," that is a way to narrowly locate her feeling of expectation right at the moment when the sentence "I was going to give you another book" ends. The present continuous tense primarily means action in progress, but commonly takes on variations of that meaning in different contexts. In this context, the primary meaning is altered to "something happening at a very specific moment" as well as "very briefly", i.e. the action is transient. You are right that "The sentence left me listening for the 'but'" means the same thing. Here's another example of this use of the present continuous:

When the car hit the front of the house, I looked up—and the wall is cracking! Luckily it held together.

The shift from past tense to present continuous is a way to make the action seem "more present" to the listener. It's somewhat informal.

  • I believe there's no shift from past to present in my case. At least not literally. The author cited my sentence, then told how they felt about it. Honestly, I don't really remember how I thought about the sentence back then when I didn't understand it. Anyway, awesome answer :)
    – x-yuri
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 11:02
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    Now that I think about it, in most of the examples I could find people listened for on purpose. Nothing happened that made them listen for. That probably was the cause of confusion.
    – x-yuri
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 11:15

The person who answered your question is purposefully sharing their experience of reading your sentence as if it were happening in the moment. It's a much less formal, less objective and more familiar way of getting their idea across than your suggestions. To me it sounds more urgent, especially since they say 'here is a warning:'. They are trying to make it urgent for you to understand and change the way your sentence is coming across. It seems to me that there is a personal investment for them in making you understand and respond to their experience of your sentence.

To my perception, this makes the answer as much about them as about your question. Academic teachers don't do it this way. There might be reasons this person is doing it this way, though. They might think that being more personal about it will create a personal connection between you two and make their answer more meaningful. They might think that it's more helpful or more understandable if they make it personal like this, sharing their experience instead of just describing their experience. I don't know whether this person is from the U.S.A. and I don't know where you're from, but Americans are more likely to be personal and familiar with strangers than people from more traditional cultures.

You could ask in the comments and maybe get an answer from them, which would be more accurate than mine.

  • As the person In question, I answered it in this "voice" because that is how i talk. I related the reading experience to me because that was the only person's response I know about. I used the word warning as it was simply that a warning the sentence had created what I expected was an unintended expectation.
    – WendyG
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 12:27
  • I don't know if you intended to insult with the phrase "I think it's not the best way to answer your... " but I don't think that was very good wording.
    – WendyG
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 12:28
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    Thanks, @WendyG. I had no intention to insult you. I intended to give honest, open feedback with the understanding that we're all open to improvement. Please take it at face value. I'll edit my answer to hopefully be more neutral. (edited)
    – dwilli
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 19:32

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