6

I know about the grammar rule that says, when A happens while B is happening (as a longer background situation), you use the simple tense for A and the progressive tense for B.

According to this rule, the title should read:

Our house gets really cold when the wind is blowing from the east.

But I listen to a lot of native speakers and pay attention to what tenses and aspects they tend to use in different situations, and based on that, I think a native would more naturally say:

Our house gets really cold when the wind blows from the east.

because these are two slow-pacing events that begin and end at the same time, and none forms a time background for the other.

My grammar suggests that the progressive (is blowing) should be used, which is obviously not wrong. But I want to ask natives whether they'd use the second construction as well, in their natural day-to-day speech.

Another example:

You look lovely when you smile/are smiling.

5
  • 1
    I was about to give an aswer but then I read native speakers so I stepped aside. However, the continuous tense is a temporary action. If the wind is blowing, it means it's not a permanent situation, it's a puntual action. The same applies to when you're smiling, it means that it's a temporary action. Now when you use the simple tense, you describe the situation as a routine, habit, or a true fact. You can swtich between simple or continuous tense, but the meaning they intend to give, it's different.
    – Alejandro
    Dec 26 '15 at 11:20
  • @Subjunctive I didn't understand what puntual meant (punctual maybe?), but I get your point. Thank you. The problem is, they (or so many of them) state it as a general rule, without pointing out the nuance of meaning you clarified. But I think there is even more freedom to this matter. Even if someone's smiling for the first time in ages (so it's not habitual), I guess you still can use either constructions: "You look lovely when you are smiling/smile."
    – Færd
    Dec 26 '15 at 11:43
  • It's a typo. It's punctual.
    – Alejandro
    Dec 26 '15 at 12:33
  • You can, of course. But they intend to different meanings. If it's happening right now or if it's not a permanent situation, use the continuous form. If it's permanent, a routine or habit, use the simple form. In this case both apply but there are some examples where only one works.
    – Alejandro
    Dec 26 '15 at 14:07
  • I don't agree that blows would refer to a punctual (non-durative) situation.
    – user230
    Dec 27 '15 at 10:11
3

I think that so-called "grammar rule" is either stated poorly or perhaps inaccurately. In short, I am unaware of any such grammar rule as stated in your question.

Both of your example sentences are very much conducive to the use of the simple present in both of their clauses. And, to me, this is true even when the action (wind blows or you smile) is taking place at the moment of speaking.

In broad terms, the simple present refers to the present, but also indefinitely into the past and indefinitely into the future. So it is used, among many other things, for statements of scientific fact (Water boils at 100° Celsius) or "timeless truths (Snooze, you lose or Old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Notice these sentences are true not only for the present, but also indefinitely into the past and I indefinitely into the future.

Both your sentences fit this usage. They are statements of what is true all the time. So they seem preferable to me than does the use of the progressive.

In addition, even if the event (wind/to blow or you/to smile) is happening at the moment of speaking, the sentences with the simple present are more apt to be said than the ones with the progressive (in my experience). This is because the present occurrence of the action is merely one instance of this timeless truth.

So, the following illustrates this:

Our house gets really cold when the wind blows from the east, like the wind is doing right now.

Notice the added clause shows the activity of wind/to blow is happening at the moment of speaking yet the two clauses in question both use the simple present. Yet the is doing refers to the action occurring at the moment of speaking. It would be strange to say like it does right now to refer to the action of the present moment.

Similarly,

You look lovely when you smile, like you are doing right now.

shows that the first two clauses can refer to a single occurrence of the timeless truth that is happening at the moment of speaking. While the are doing is progressive because it's referring to the action as a duration occurring in the present. And note this duration is temporary, so it extends only a little bit into the past and future, but not indefinitely into the past and future (like the simple present does). Note also the action expressed in the progressive is subject to change

You look lovely when you smile, but when you are frowning you don't (look lovely).

Here the action of to frown is conceived of as a temporary duration subject to change. You could say

You look lovely when you are smiling

but again this conceives the action of you/to smile as having duration and being temporary and subject to change, and so it does not express a "timeless truth".

I apologize for the lack of comprehensiveness and perhaps even clarity in this post. Hopefully it has given you something of value.

1
  • Well we usually advise people to wait a day or two before selecting an answer. You are more likely to get more answers (and perhaps better answers) if you allow more time...
    – GoDucks
    Dec 26 '15 at 17:33
6

You asked: "My grammar suggests that the progressive (is blowing and are smiling) should be used, which is obviously not wrong. But I want to ask natives whether they'd use the second construction as well, in their natural day-to-day speech."

As a 66-year-old native Californian (and speaking only for myself), I suspect I use both forms in everyday conversations, even though your point of grammar is correct. In your two examples, I think I tend to say "when the wind blows from the east," and "look lovely when you are smiling."

I realize this is an observation-based answer of limited value, but I think your question deserves multiple responses from native English speakers. Thank you for asking an interesting question.

4
  • Thanks for your input. Could you tell us what makes these two sentences ("... when the wind blows from the east" and "...look lovely when you are smiling") different in your opinion?
    – Færd
    Dec 26 '15 at 15:19
  • 2
    I think it is specific to "wind" in this case. I tend to say, "It is windy today," or "The wind is really picking up out there," or (as in your example), "Our house gets cold when the wind blows from the east." If I stopped to think about it before speaking, I would say it correctly instead. OTOH, "You look lovely when you smile" sounds vaguely patronizing to me (meaning, "You should smile more often!"), while "You look lovely when you are smiling" sounds softer and more intimate to my ear; it is something I say to my wife, for instance. Does this help? I realize it is highly subjective. Dec 26 '15 at 15:42
  • It sure does help. What you said about that patronizing implication was very helpful. "You look lovely when you are smiling" is more likely to be taken as an intimate compliment, meaning "now that you're smiling I'm loving it!".
    – Færd
    Dec 26 '15 at 15:53
  • +1 But your answer is clear succinct helpful, honest and accurate! Jan 25 '16 at 22:48
0

I agree with GoDucks. You choose the continuous form for an ongoing action and the simple tense form for the action interrupting it. But in your case I would rather think of "whenever the wind blows from the east".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.