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Usually, when talking about adverbs of frequency, we put them under the topic of "Simple Present Tense". Because in this tense we consider habits and routines and adverbs of frequency are the most useful phrases that we can describe our routines frequency by. My question is if we can use the adverbs of frequency in other cases e.g. present continuous tense or other tenses.

If the answer to the first question is "yes", what is the difference between these two sentences in their meanings:

  • He always complains about the food.
  • He's always complaining about the food.

3 Answers 3

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  1. Adverbs of frequency can be used in their normal function with any non-continuous tense, including passive voice:

I'll always return your calls.
She hasn't often seen them together.
They rarely missed a Saturday night at the park.
He had occasionally taken a stroll before dusk.

With continuous tenses, they usually don't make sense because continuous tenses refer to the exact present moment as distinct from other moments, while adverbs of frequency refer to a pattern of repeated events. The only way it's possible is if the continuous event itself is the regular event that happens:

A hot mug of tea was always waiting for me when I came downstairs in the morning.

  1. Using "always" (and no other adverb of frequency) with any continuous tense is good grammar, and has the function of showing annoyance at something that happens often.

Your second example can be rephrased as:

It's annoying that he always complains about the food.

Note that my rephrasing is in the present simple, not continuous. None of these variations have any continuous meaning at all.

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  • As I know, There's a difference between "every day" and "all day". If something happens every day, it means that it might happen once a day, but it happens every day. And if something happens all day, it means that it keeps happening during the day. Can we compare this example with our topic? Like we say using continuous tense shows that it keeps happening while simple present is only focusing the pattern. Is that correct?
    – Mohd Sala
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 22:16
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    No. Continuous tenses do not focus on what keeps happening, nor on what's happening for an extended time, like all day. They focus on what's happening at a particular moment, so there's no helpful comparison with "every"/"all".
    – gotube
    Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 0:49
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We can certainly use adverbs of frequency in the way you suggest - and both sentences are grammatically correct.

To me they mean essentially the same thing, but idiomatically may be used in slightly different circumstances. The first I'd associate with a simple factual statement or comment. The second seems to betray a slight annoyance on the part of the user. But this perhaps only applies to the verb complain.

He always walks to work and He is always walking to work are also used differently. Again the first is a statement of fact. The second seems to me to suggest that something keeps happening necessitating his frequently (not literally always) having to walk to work - eg He has an unreliable car, or his lift frequently forgets to collect him.

In both cases above the adverb - always - seems less to be taken literally where the present continuous is concerned.

I have no authority for saying any of this - it is just based on my senses after a lifetime as a native speaker.

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  • Surely the first means literally He complains on every occasion and the second He complains so often that it becomes annoying or embarrassing. Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 7:43
  • @KateBunting Yes. That is the gist of what I am saying. Gotube expresses it rather better in their answer.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 13, 2022 at 10:45
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Question:

Usually, when talking about adverbs of frequency, we put them under the topic of "Simple Present Tense". Because in this tense we consider habits and routines and adverbs of frequency are the most useful phrases that we can describe our routines frequency by. My question is if we can use the adverbs of frequency in other cases e.g. present continuous tense or other tenses.

If the answer to the first question is "yes", what is the difference between these two sentences in their meanings:

He always complains about the food. He's always complaining about the food.


Answer:

In the context of this question, the present (tense) continuous (aspect) is used to talk about repeated temporary events, as well as with adverbs of indefinite frequency to complain, or for unplanned events.

We often use the present continuous with words like always, constantly, continually, and forever to describe events that are regular but not planned, and often not wanted:

My wife, she’s always throwing things out. I like to keep everything. I’m constantly spilling things.

We also use the present continuous to describe actions that are repeated or regular, but which we believe to be temporary:

I’m not drinking much coffee these days. I’m trying to cut down.

She’s working a lot in London at the moment. (She doesn’t usually work in London.)

Although this last example is not one that satisfies the parameters in your question, it does include another case in point, which might be helpful.

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