8

I once asked a question with the title:

Is the word cloths still being used?

And someone edited it to:

Is the word cloths still used?

Why is the first progressive one wrong?

  • I doubt either is wrong, so I cannot understand what the intention of the edit was. – user3169 May 20 '14 at 4:47
  • 2
    Is the word cloth still in use? – Maulik V May 20 '14 at 4:52
  • @MaulikV: cloth and cloths are different words ;) But indeed, your phrasing is a very good alternative :) – oerkelens May 20 '14 at 6:27
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There's a very small, subtle difference between the two constructions here, though both are valid and acceptable.

Is the word cloths still being used?

This might be construed as asking if cloths is, right at this exact moment, undergoing linguistic utilization.

Is the word cloths still used?

This asks if people still currently make use of the word cloths, but does not inquire about whether it's being used just this second.

Really, the grammatical difference is negligible here. The present progressive does not necessarily mean the action is happening exactly at the time of speaking, and the majority of listeners will not make any semantic distinction between the two phrasings in this case. Consider this potential answer:

Yes, I heard it on the radio yesterday.

This response is perfectly valid to either version of the question. It conveys that cloths is still part of current English lexicon even though the actual usage of the word occurred in the past.

When we ask whether a word is used, it's understood that the state of being in use need not be literally continuous. Lexicon is currently a word that's used, because it's part of modern English vocabulary, and people say and understand it. It's not very likely that every moment someone is saying, writing or reading lexicon; it's probable that lexicon isn't literally being used at any given time. Despite this, we still consider it to be used because it shows up frequently enough in English.

The other differences between the two sentences are stylistic choice and frequency of use. Asking whether a word is still used is much more common than asking whether a word is still being used.

  • 1
    +1 because your precise analysis of the fine distinction looks good to me. But I do think ascribing the original edit to nothing more than the "preferred writing style of the editor" is perhaps a little glib. It wasn't my edit, but given these usage figures from Google Books I thoroughly endorse it on a learners site... "this word is still used":17000 results, "this word is still being used":7 – FumbleFingers May 20 '14 at 16:26
  • Good point. I ran an Ngram but I don't know if it's conclusive, since it says it found only one result each for both still used and still being used. Regardless, still used is the more common construction and easier to discover in a search engine. – Esoteric Screen Name May 21 '14 at 2:11
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    I don't think NGrams is the right tool for this one. Usage for still [being] used would vary considerably according to exactly what's being referenced, so you have to include the word "word". But then there aren't enough hits for NGrams, so you need to use Google Books. The thing is when you ask if a word is still in use, you never actually mean at this precise moment (it's always a far more general these days). So the inclusion of being isn't really appropriate, and the original edit is perfectly justifiable. – FumbleFingers May 21 '14 at 11:41
  • @FumbleFingers Well said and agreed. – Esoteric Screen Name May 22 '14 at 3:42
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Both sentences are valid, but the revised sentence is more appropriate, as explained by @Esoteric.

Here's an example to illustrate the difference:

  1. Is the typewriter still being used?
  2. Is the typewriter still used?

In (1), a likely interpretation would be: There is one typewriter, but someone was using it when I last checked. Has that person finished, and is it my turn yet?

In (2), a likely interpretation would be: Does anyone use typewriters anymore? (Despite the use of the definite article the, the sentence does not refer to one particular typewriter, but typewriter technology in general.)

Your original question about the usage of the word cloths is closer to the second example.

3

still implies that the action is happen-ing. So, using both still and being used can make the sentence a bit long.

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