Sneaky Grammar: Why you’re not in the habit of taking just one tennis lesson

Tennis-fail

Linguistics, for me, has been something of a drug.  There is something delicious about using the scientific approach to the study of language that I never experienced in my K-12 education.  In the case of linguistics, I think (I’m guessing) that part of it has to do with finally figuring out, or being given an explanation for things that before were given a response like, “oh it just is this way.  You just have to memorize it.  There is no pattern.

These sorts of answers are completely unsatisfactory, for obvious reasons.  And it is the amateur language teacher who relies on intuition alone to decide if something “sounds grammatical” or not.

For me, one of the simply most satisfying explanations had to do with the habitual aspect in Standard English.  I’ve talked about this before, in connection with African American English, but as a simple refresher, the present tense in English (I eat, I drink, I drive, I play, I take.. etc..) does not indicate an action is occurring in the present tense.  Instead, it indicates that the action is something the subject is in the habit of doing.

For example:

“Oh are you a vegetarian?
No, I eat meat.” (meaning, I am in the habit of eating me. Not, ‘I am presently eating meat’)

“I drink soda.”

“I drive a Honda.”

“I play soccer.”

“I take tennis lessons.”

The reason I bolded the last, is that it came up in a lesson with my 7th graders recently.  The textbook-provided power point was having the students work on noun-verb agreement and came up with these two examples:

habitual2

The meaning of this sentence is something similar to “I am in the habit of taking tennis lessons”.   Instead, the writers abandoned the habitual aspect of the verb and tried to fit a singular event (e.g. a tennis lesson) into it.  Notice the difference in meaning when you say,

“I am taking a tennis lesson (and I’ll be done in one hour/next week/when I get the money).”

and

“I take tennis lessons (on Fridays/weekly/when I can).”

The perplexing problem for me, is that the 1st question (‘my sister doesn’t go swimming’) gets the habitual perfectly (though, it’s not possible to tell if that was on purpose).  The important part here to make sense of, is that it is impossible to habitually  take one tennis lesson.  Which explains why this sentence, while maybe not crunchingly ungrammatical could be cause for confusion.

But of course, being the professionals we are here, I made sure to check GoogleBattle to make sure my grammatical intuitions panned out.  Here are the results of “I take a tennis lesson” vs. “I take tennis lessons”

habitual1

Looks like my intuitions were right.  I was a little surprised that “take a tennis lesson” showed up with 27,700 hits though.  Even the most ungrammatical sentences will get some hits on google, but I thought that there might actually be a dialect somewhere that no longer (or never did) use the present habitual.  So I checked out the hits.

habitual3

This is just the first few, but you’ll notice something very quickly.  First of all, the only phrase that actually fits our example (meaning, ‘take‘ is the tensed verb) is the one that says, “I take a tennis lesson once a week“.  As I’ve mentioned before, the habitual aspect can be inserted in a couple of different ways, one is to add an adverbial phrase.  In this case, ‘once a week’.

The other examples place the tense on another verb, (‘should’, ‘can’).  Not all verbs have the habitual aspect within them.  And with modifier verbs, the habitual aspect can be erased.

“Can I take a tennis lesson?”

“You might be able to take a tennis lesson”.

“They might let you take a tennis lesson.”

Notice, in these (and the sentences in the google search) sentences, we are no longer talking about the “simple present tense”.  It is instead the present infinitive, a different verb construction that does not hold the habitual aspect.

What this shows us, is that even very proficient speakers of English (perhaps even native speakers) have trouble recognizing the habitual aspect.  Even if they are producing materials for teaching grammar.  This example in particular comes from my classroom textbook, which is very well put together and I actually enjoy using it.

Like many languages, the present tense in Korean does not have this habitual meaning in its simple present tense.

점심         먹어요
lunch      eat
(I) eat lunch

This does not mean, “I am in the habit of eating lunch”.  Which can be confusing, because the “present continuous” equivalent in Korean, also means something similar.

점심           먹고            있어요
lunch    eating    (have, am)
(I) am eating lunch

As I expected, when I asked around, most native Koreans could not give me a straight answer as to what the difference is between these two sentences.  Most people said, “they mean the same thing, you’d just use them in different situations.”  It comes as no surprise then, that the habitual would be a difficult grammatical feature for a Korean English learner to identify.  Particularly when their textbook can’t do it either.

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