Review of Progressives, Patterns, Pedagogy
AUTHOR: Römer, Ute
TITLE: Progressives, Patterns, Pedagogy
SUBTITLE: A corpus-driven approach to English progressive forms, functions,
contexts and didactics
SERIES: Studies in Corpus Linguistics 18
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Britta Schneider, The Language Centre of the University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Progressives, Patterns, Pedagogy, by Ute Römer, is the first corpus-driven
comparative study of progressives occurring in the speech of native English
speakers and textbooks used for the instruction of English as a Foreign
Language (EFL) in German secondary schools. The study is based on careful
analysis of more than 10,000 progressive forms of spoken British English
taken from the British National Corpus and The Bank of English, and from a
small corpus, compiled by the author herself, of progressive forms
occurring in German EFL textbooks.
The purpose of the book, is (i) to highlight differences between actual
language use and textbook language with regard to the distribution of
progressives, their preferred contexts, functions, and typical
lexical-grammatical patterns, and (ii) to elaborate a concept for teaching
progressives while accounting for the three main criteria in language
pedagogy: typicality, authenticity, and communicative utility.
The book is organized in eight chapters. The first chapter, which is also
the shortest one, introduces the reader to the phenomena of progressives in
the English language and explains why, despite a plethora of theoretical
studies and descriptions of progressives in grammar and reference books,
this study is necessary: Most of those accounts, Römer argues, lack
large-scale empirical studies to adequately describe the distribution and
functions of different progressive forms. Also, existing theories on the
use of progressives have been based on a collection of invented samples
rather than authentic language use. Römer's empirical study of progressives
in contemporary spoken British English will thus address the following
questions: “How are progressives actually used in spoken English? How are
their different forms distributed? In which lexical or syntactical contexts
do they usually occur? What do different progressive forms typically
express? and Is it possible to identify a “generally valid” behavior of
progressives or do different verbs show largely dissimilar context and
function patterns?” (p. 2).
In chapter two, Römer presents the three main theoretical concepts
underlying her research. First, she introduces and defines corpus-driven
linguistics (CDL) as opposed to corpus-based linguistics (CBL) and, based
on recent corpus linguistic research (Mindt 1991, Hunston & Francis 2000),
argues that CDL may be more than just a methodology to empirically
investigate a language and that corpus-driven language analysis may in fact
lead to a rethinking of traditional linguistic categories such as the
traditional division of grammar and lexis. Second, the author points at the
important role of context to her study of progressives, based on the role
of context in linguistics first elaborated by Firth (1957) and later
operationalized by Sinclair's innovative corpus linguistic research (1991).
Firth's observations of contexts of speech sequences are central to today's
corpus-driven analysis of language whereas the concepts of collocation and
colligation have been extended by Sinclair with the concepts of semantic
preference and semantic prosody. The third theoretical cornerstone of
Römer's study is pedagogical grammar (PG) and its suggested benefits in the
foreign language classroom. Römer's approach to the study of progressives
thus aims to be a holistic one, integrating the empirical analysis of
corpus data, observation of patterns and contexts and the teachability of
English progressives in a communicative-oriented foreign language classroom.
According to the author, large corpora of authentic texts can not only lead
to observations about “how language really works but also how it best ought
to be taught” (p. 11).
The third chapter concludes the theoretical part of the book. After
mentioning some terminological and definitional problems with reference to
the progressive aspect, Römer first provides the reader with an overview of
two theoretical studies (Comrie 1976, and Williams 2002) investigating
frequencies and functions of the progressive form in English. The chapter
then moves on to give a detailed account on how linguistic and empirical
grammar dealt with the progressive form. Comparing four grammars with
respect to their degree of theoreticalness and empiricalness, Römer seems
to favor Mindt's Empirical Grammar of the English Verb System (2000)
because it follows a corpus-driven approach of analysis while focusing on
the functional analysis of the progressive aspect. The third chapter closes
with a discussion of selected empirical studies on the progressive by
focusing on overall frequencies of occurrence, functions, and context of
the progressive form. Römer observes that all studies reviewed follow a
very individual approach and hence provide very different and largely
Chapter four is the core of the empirical analysis of two subcorpora: the
BNC_spoken (which makes up approx. 10 % of the BNC, a collection of over
4,000 British English text samples, with an overall size of over
100,000,000 words) and the BoE_spoken (part of The Bank of English, a
monitor corpus whose size is periodically increased, with an overall size
of 418,449,873 words at the time of analysis). After the selection of the
corpora, the author selected 100 verbs based on their frequency of
occurrence in spoken British English for further analysis. In order to
access a large number of progressives in context from the spoken part of
the two corpora, the author used WordSmith Tools and Lookup. After saving a
maximum of 100 concordances lines in KWIC format for each verb form, all
concordances had to be filtered to delete all instances in which the verb
form was not part of a progressive construction. For easier access, all
remaining concordance lines were then entered in a Microsoft Access
database. In a next step, the corpus data had to be encoded in order to
account for a) context features: tense form distribution, TO BE
contraction, subject, preposition, object, time adverbial, place adverbial,
other adverbial, negation, question, if-clause, relative clause, and b)
central function features of the progressive such as time reference,
repeatedness, and continuousness, plus additional function features like
general validity, politeness/softening, emphasis/attitude, shock/disbelief,
gradual change/development, habituality, and framing.
In the meticulous analysis of the lexical-grammatical contexts of
significant progressive collocations in spoken British English the
following observations could be made:
– the most frequent form in both corpora is the present progressive with
equally large shares between 're/are V-ing and 's V-ing and 'm V-ing,
followed by past progressives
– short forms of the auxiliary TO BE plus V-ing, e.g. 're selling are more
common in both corpora but are on the whole quite comparable
– personal pronouns (I, you, he/she/it, we, they) most typically combine as
subjects with the progressive, followed by noun phrases introduced by the,
people, and names of people
– progressives occur mostly in affirmative contexts
– one third of all progressive tokens are directly followed by a
preposition; the most frequent prepositions are up, about, with, out, for,
in, to and on.
– progressives are frequently modified by adverbials of time and place,
e.g. just, now, when, at and still
The difficult detection, description and analysis of progressives in spoken
British English and their functions led to the following observations:
– the majority of progressive forms in BNC_spoken and BoE_brspok refer to
actions or events in the present; while past and future references are also
quite high but roughly the same in numbers.
– two basic functions of progressive forms could be identified: the large
majority of corpus examples refer to a) continuous, about 35 percent to b)
repeated and about 18 per cent of the progressives to c) non-continuous
actions or events. This result is quite remarkable in the light of earlier
accounts of progressive functions which almost exclusively refer to the
continuous as the central characteristic of the progressive. Progressives
therefore are found to express continuousness, repeatedness or a sense of
softening or downtoning.
– seven additional function features were identified, listed in order of
frequency: “general validity”, “politeness or softening”, “emphasis or
attitude”, “gradual change and development”, “old and new habits”,
“framing”, and “shock or disbelief”. While the two functions features
“general validity” and “framing” occurred across verb types, the other five
function features are strongly lexically determined.
The last parts of chapter four provide an in-depth analysis of the
relationship between progressives and individual verb forms, aimed at
establishing the connection between a grammatical construction and its
lexical item (lexicogrammar). Pursuing the question of “How lexical is
grammar?”, Römer is able to determine a number of typical co-occurrence
patterns of particular verbs and particular context and function features.
The analysis shows some significant variation in the distribution of 9,468
progressive tokens among preselected 99 verb types (cf. p. 114) .
Particularly frequent are progressives such as wondering, happening,
hoping, expecting, suggesting, and going. The author classifies these
progressive-favoring verbs into two groups: mental activity verbs (wonder,
hope, expect) and communication verbs (talk, tell, say, ask). Also stative
verbs like listen, look, stay, and cost seem to favor progressive forms
whereas dynamic verbs, such as follow or sort, do not.
The further study of co-occurrence of particular verb forms and particular
context and function features of the pre-selected and analyzed 99 verb
forms lead to many interesting observations and the author's conclusion
that it is impossible to treat the progressive as an exclusively
grammatical construction, independent of lexis.
In chapter five, the second part of Römer's empirical analysis of
progressive forms and their functions and context, the author investigates
the treatment of progressives in German English as a Foreign Language
(GEFL) textbooks and learner's grammars that are commonly used in German
secondary schools. The use of the progressive is considered as being
difficult in the acquisition process of German speaking learners since
there is no direct translation or grammaticalized equivalent in the German
language. Two textbook series of two leading publishing companies on the
German EFL market as well as two learner's grammars and grammar booklets
(Grammatische Beihefte), which accompany the textbooks, were selected for
analysis: Learning English Green Line New (GLN), published by Klett Verlag;
English G 2000A (EG 2000), published by Cornelsen Verlag; Learning English
Grundgrammatik by Klett Verlag; and Cornelsen English Grammar, by Cornelsen
The German English as a Foreign Language Textbook Corpus (henceforth GEFL
TC), consisting of two subcorpora English G 2000 and Green Line New,
contains 108,424 tokens or words in 494 text files. Out of the 100
high-frequency English verbs used in the investigation of progressives in
spoken British English, only 33 and 37 respectively were found in the two
subcorpora. Following the analytical model presented in chapter four, the
GEFL TC corpus data is then analyzed in respect to context and function
features. While the two textbook series treat context and function features
of the progressive somewhat differently, the sequence of introduction of
progressive tense forms is the same in both textbooks and follows the order
of frequency of occurrence in spoken British English. However, the range of
progressive functions presented in the two textbooks are rather restricted
and monolithic, with the expression of continuousness paired with
non-repeatedness being the central use of the progressive form. Römer
establishes therefore that repeatedness, the second central function
feature in real spoken English progressives, is not sufficiently treated in
the textbooks. Of the total of seven additional functions identified in the
corpora of spoken British English, only two are discussed in the learning
materials (“framing” which is far less common in the corpus evidence, and
“emphasis/attitude”, restricted to collocations with the adverb always).
Other instances of the very common and frequently occurring “emphatic”
function of the progressive are not covered. Another aspect that is,
according to Römer, missing in the textbook treatment of the progressive is
a more exhaustive lexical-grammatical perspective on verbs that most
frequently occur in progressive forms and functions.
Chapter six presents an evaluation of the progressive in “school” English
through the lens of the earlier discussed corpus evidence. Similar to
previous analyses, the author looks first at context phenomena and language
patterns like progressives and distribution of tenses, subjects, objects,
prepositions, negations, adverbials before turning to function features
such as progressives and time reference, central functions among others.
The central findings of this in-depth description of similarities and
differences between real spoken British English and “school” English are in
line with what, according to Römer, previous studies suggest when comparing
some central lexical-grammatical features in natural language corpora and
language teaching materials (for example, Tongini-Bonelli 2001 or Mauranen
2004). In a list at the chapter's end, the author illustrates as many as 23
rather significant pattern deviations with verbs and progressives on the
context side, and 15 on the function side. Based on the results of her
study, Römer concludes that the English taught in the German ELT classroom
is not the same as the English used by native speakers.
Chapter seven seeks to bridge the gap between pedagogical descriptions of
the English language for the foreign language classroom and language
reality by suggesting moderate changes to existing teaching material by
incorporating corpus evidence on the most salient features of the
progressive in British spoken English. These changes would lead to less
precious classroom time to be spent on not so common language patterns and
rather unimportant meanings of language items. Römer, inspired by the works
of Sinclair, Francis, Hunston, Tognini-Bonelli, Leech and Mindt, proposes
the “development of a corpus-driven communicative didactic lexical grammar
of progressives” (p. 287) following a progression from the present
progressive, past progressive, present perfect progressive, and past
perfect progressive while observing the learner's individual learning path.
The progression and sequencing of progressive forms, functions and context
should be guided by the frequency of occurrence in the corpus data. As far
as the presentation of the new learning material on progressives is
concerned, the author suggests to introduce the skill of concordancing to
the language classroom so that intermediate or advanced learners can work
out the most typical patterns of progressive use for themselves. As
mentioned at the very beginning of her study, the pedagogical description
of the progressive has to take into account typicality, authenticity, and
In conclusion, chapter eight gives an outlook of what could be done in
order to facilitate future comparative research between natural language
corpora and textbook corpora, for example, extending the now existing GEFL
TC corpus with EFL textbooks from other non-English speaking countries.
Römer also proposes more research on spoken EFL classroom discourse as
initiated by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975). Another component that the
author would have liked to investigate is language learner output in form
of learner EFL corpora. With respect to regional varieties of spoken
English, the author mentions the unavailability of appropriate spoken
corpora. Last but not least, Römer points out that further research is also
needed on the teaching of progressives and other lexical-grammatical areas
of spoken English from the perspective of Second Language Acquisition.
EVALUATION OF THE BOOK
With Progressives, Patterns, Pedagogy, Ute Römer has put forward a very
specific and systematic comparison of the progressive occurring in natural
spoken language corpora and a German English as a Foreign Language corpus.
The corpus-driven analysis of huge quantities of natural occurring language
data and the compilation of a GEFL corpus is a very important step in
bridging the gap between existing language teaching materials and
corpus-driven pedagogical language description of salient lexical-grammar
patterns of the target language. The study is therefore a highly
significant contribution to the field of corpus-driven language teaching in
that it compares the functions and contexts of naturally occurring
progressive forms to the progressive taught in German English language
classes. Besides the impressive data base, the merits of this unique study
lie specifically in the detailed and systematic theoretical description and
discussion of language patterning. It is also the author's explicit
intention to make her research available to researchers from other
linguistic disciplines and encourages them to contribute to and complement
her GEFL TC corpus from very different branches of applied linguistics.
Occupying a theory-neutral position in her way of doing linguistics, Römer
follows through from a strict corpus-driven linguistic angle, putting the
corpus first and approaching it without any fixed theoretical concepts.
Although the wealth of data discussed in this book may appear to future
readers a mercy and a curse at the same time, the author helps the reader
in coping with the meticulous research by providing excellent summaries at
the end of each chapter and sub chapter.
On the first pages of chapter four, Römer addresses a central problem with
regard to the validity of authentic native-speaker English as basis for a
comparison with “school” or learner English. Although the author defends
her position to stick with native-speaker English as the language teaching
norm (p. 40), the growing acceptance of global or international English as
EFL teaching norm cannot be denied. However, the author's clear preference
for authentic native English as the target norm is greatly amended for by
her call for more EFL learner language corpora.
To sum up, the greatest asset of this book is that the presented analysis
of the English progressive lends itself for similar studies on other
lexicogrammar items, the results of which may then be used to rewrite
existent grammar-oriented pedagogical descriptions of language from a
lexical-grammatical perspective. In particular, lists of verbs (pp. 88-102)
that frequently occur in a special lexical-grammatical context are
immensely valuable for language teachers and the development of language
teaching material and references. The author has indeed gone to great
lengths to present the wealth of data and interpretations in a holistic
and, as far as language style is concerned, attractive way that hopefully
makes this research accessible to a wide research and teaching community.
Comrie, B. (1976) Aspect. Cambridge: CUP.
Firth, J.R. (1957) Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951. London: OUP.
Hunston, S. & G. Francis (2000) Pattern Grammar. A Corpus-driven Approach
to the Lexical Grammar of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Mauranen, A. (2004) Spoken corpus for an ordinary learner. In J. McH.
Sinclair (Ed.), How to Use Corpora in Language Teaching (pp. 89-105).
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Mindt, D. (2000) An Empirical Grammar of the English Verb System. Berlin:
Mindt, D. (1991) Syntactic evidence for semantic distinctions in English.
In K. Aijmer & B. Altenberg (Eds.), English Corpus Linguistics: Studies in
Honour of Jan Svartvik (pp. 182-1096). London: Longman
Sinclair, J. McH. (1991) Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: OUP.
Sinclair, J. McH & R. M. Coulthard (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse.
The English Used by Teachers and Pupils. London: OUP.
Tongini-Bonelli, E. (2001) Corpus Linguistics at Work. Amsterdam: John
Willimans, C. 2002 Non-progressive and Progressive Aspect in English.
Fasano: Schena Editore.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Britta Schneider holds a PhD in Foreign Language Teaching from Monash
University, Australia, and a MA degree in Romance Philology from the
University of Siegen, Germany. She is currently a Lecturer of English for
Academic Purposes (EAP) in the Language Centre at the University of
Jyväskylä, Finland. Her research interests are in second/foreign language
acquisition, foreign language teaching and learning, as well as using
language corpora in language teaching.