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When he talks of "enemies of the people", the analogies with Stalinist Russia and other 20th-century regimes are so glaring that you have to keep reminding yourself that the French Revolutionaries were having to make everything up as they went along, against a very different background from that of the 20th-century tyrannies. (Source)

Is the phrase "were having to" a progressive form of "to have", which is the indirect expression of the modal verb "must"? I must admit that I have never come across this form.

Could I write just "Revolutionaries had to make everything up" without changing the meaning?

P.S. And what about this swap of aspect:

"Revolutionaries had to make everything up as they were going along".

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SUPPLEMENTAL to CopperKettle's answer
In the comments to this answer, Bart-leby asks whether as they went along should be cast in the progressive, as they were going along.

GO, by itself, is what linguists call an 'activity' verb: it is atelic, having no 'endpoint' built in to its sense.

Consequently, in contexts like as they went along, it is inherently continuous; casting it in the progressive is superfluous.

Things get more complicated if an explicit goal is provided—for instance, if we speak of going to London or toward London. That goal may recategorize GO as an 'accomplishment' verb: one which is telic, with an endpoint built in to the context. For example:

  • If you say They went to Walsingham, the simple past went has a 'perfective' sense: we understand that the journey was completed, "accomplished".

  • In older English, and in literary registers, that recategorization is rolled back in contexts where an imperfective sense is clearly intended—for instance, with as in the Elizabethan ballad As I went to Walsingham [I met a jolly palmer], which speaks of something that happened during the journey.

  • But in Present-day English, GO to X remains recategorized in other contexts. We prefer you to cast GO in the progressive:

    As I was going to Walsingham I met a jolly palmer.

Aspect recategorization is complicated, and varies not only with period and register but also with the particular verb—and even with the particular preposition which supplies the goal. For instance: GO + toward is inherently imperfective, so use of the perfective simple past went toward implies recategorization as an 'inchoative':

The next morning I went toward Walsingham means I started a journey toward Walsingham.


Note that perfective has nothing to do with the construction we call the "perfect"—that name for the construction is an accident of history.

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My guess is that the progressive aspect is used due to the presence of one phrase. I will mark it in bold:

When he talks of "enemies of the people", the analogies with Stalinist Russia and other 20th-century regimes are so glaring that you have to keep reminding yourself that the French Revolutionaries were having to make everything up as they went along, against a very different background from that of the 20th-century tyrannies.

The time expression "as they went along" imparts a continuous sense to the clause, and "were having to make everything" dovetails with this continuous sense.

P.S. Per alephzero's comment below, note also this clause:

When he talks of "enemies of the people", the analogies with Stalinist Russia and other 20th-century regimes are so glaring that you have to keep reminding yourself that the French Revolutionaries were having to make everything up as they went along, against a very different background from that of the 20th-century tyrannies.

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  • Thank you for your reply. And what about this change? "Revolutionaries had to make everything up as they were going along". May be I am wrong but it seems to me that the continuous aspect fits better to the second part of the sentence. Does it make sense? – bart-leby Jul 22 '15 at 13:24
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    I do not dare say better. As a non-native speaker I would like only to know whether my version (with a swapped progressive aspect) is possible. – bart-leby Jul 22 '15 at 13:38
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    +1 This is exactly right. The author employs the progressive to emphasize that in the 18th century revolution was a process in which the revolutionaries kept encountering unprecedented situations. 20th century revolutionaries like Stalin had the experience of the French Revolution to look back on. – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 22 '15 at 15:44
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    Stylistically I think this stems from "you have to keep reminding yourself" earlier in the sentence. You have to repeat the act of reminding yourself, just as the revolutionaries had to repeat the act of "making something up" to deal with new situations. To me, it seems to read better if you either omit the progressive form in all three verbs: ".. you have to remind yourself ... they had make everything up ... they went along", or include it in all three: "... you have keep reminding yourself ... they were having to make everything up ... they were going along". – alephzero Jul 22 '15 at 18:18
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    @User1 - I agree that it would be handy to introduce an indicator of whether the poster is a native speaker or not, to help OPs find better answers. However, I find it perfectly okay to be guessing and making errors, this is part of the process of learning. I don't need advice on finding other venues for posting my answers. If you don't like any of my answers, feel free to downvote them and to criticize specific points, but do not feel free to give your valuable advice on someone's "going elsewhere". If you don't like non-natives posting answers here, well, try to change the rules of the site. – CowperKettle Jul 22 '15 at 22:37
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As a native speaker of English, it seems to me these two sentences mean the same thing:

They were having to make everything up as they went along.

They had to make everything up as they went along.

Not only that, I regard the second sentence as better, because it expresses the same idea more clearly and directly.

Both sentences imply that the process of making things up was a continuous process, since it occurred "as they went along." In other words, making everything up as they went along was the thing that the French Revolutionaries had to do. Logically, I suppose you might say that was the thing they were having to do, but I would never say that.

Finally, "as they went along" has a clear, idiomatic meaning that is obscured if you change it to "as they were going along," so I would not do that.

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I am a native speaker and my answer is not a guess.

When he talks of "enemies of the people", the analogies with Stalinist Russia and other 20th-century regimes are so glaring that you have to keep reminding yourself that the French Revolutionaries were having to make everything up as they went along, against a very different background from that of the 20th-century tyrannies.

The verb in question is not "have" but "have to." And yes this verb works very much like "must." For example, instead of saying

I must admit that I have never come across this form.

you could say

I have to admit that I have never come across this form.

The difference between must and have to is that in the former, the obligation of the speaker is imposed, whereas in the latter, some other obligation is imposed. See “I have to” vs. “I must”.

And yes, "were having to" is a progressive form of "have to." Namely it is the past progressive. The present progressive is "am having to."

The use of the past progressive here (were having to) is not required by either (a) "as they went along," (b) anything else in the near context, including other uses of the progressive, such as "are so glaring" and "have to keep reminding yourself." And yes, you could write the sentence as:

When he talks of "enemies of the people", the analogies with Stalinist Russia and other 20th-century regimes are so glaring that you have to keep reminding yourself that the French Revolutionaries had to make everything up as they went along, against a very different background from that of the 20th-century tyrannies.

However, by changing the aspect you are changing the meaning (e.g., what is expressed by the aspect). In this case, the original is using the past progressive and your version uses the past simple. Either one is fine; again, nothing in the context requires that either aspect be used. It is the author alone here that prefers the progressive, much to the detriment of his prose.

P.S. And what about this swap of aspect:

"Revolutionaries had to make everything up as they were going along".

Yes, that is acceptable. All that does is stretch out the activity of they went along (i.e., you have another example of the normal difference between the simple past and the progressive past).

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