Samantha Fish is an American songwriter and blues singer. In her song Somebody's Always Trying, she complains about other, unnamed women. She accuses them of trying to take her boyfriend away from her.
Somebody's always trying to get him to change his mind…
Somebody's always trying their best to lead him astray…
Somebody's always trying to take my baby away…
Today, we will explore the grammar behind the words from this song. To be more exact, we will explore how English speakers use the progressive tense to show dissatisfaction or make a complaint.
But first, we will provide a few helpful definitions.
Repeated actions or everyday activities
Simple verbs are the most common kinds of verbs in conversation.*
English speakers often use the simple present tense when talking about repeated or common, everyday activities. For example, you might hear a child say, “I study for one hour every day.”
Often, English speakers direct your attention to the repeated nature of their statements by using the simple present tense with the adverb “always.” For example, an office worker might say, “I always wake up at 6 in the morning.”
If you would like to learn more about how English speakers use the word always, you should read another Everyday Grammar story on our website, 51voa.com.
The progressive tense
While English speakers often use the simple tense with always to talk about common or repeated actions, they sometimes use the progressive tense to give the same meaning. In other words, they are using progressive verbs when you might expect them to use simple verbs.
In general, the progressive tense gives the idea that an action began or took place before something else. It also shows that the action is happening now and will continue for some time.
The form of the progressive tense is generally BE + -ing.
If we were to take our earlier example of the child, he or she might say, “I am studying.”
This means that the child began studying some time ago, is studying presently and might continue studying for some time. However, in some situations, English speakers use the progressive tense to express anger or other forms of annoyance.
Do not fear: you can tell if the speaker is using the progressive tense in this way. When English speakers are using the progressive tense to show annoyance, they generally use the adverbs always or constantly.
Now, let’s listen to an example. It is from the 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky. Here, English actor Eddie Marsan expresses annoyance at his driving student, played by actress Sally Hawkins.
“You are patronizing me. You're always patronizing me. This is what you always wanted, this is what you set out to achieve, this is the game you played…”
Here, you have an example of the progressive tense used in the usual way – to talk about a present action that began sometime in the past and continues in the present. That is why Marsan says, “You are patronizing me.”
Then he uses the present progressive tense with the adverb always to express his annoyance at a series of repeated actions. His words are “You are always patronizing me.”
Let’s listen to a few more examples. Imagine two high school students complaining about a person. They might say this:
1: Do you know Todd?
2: Yes, he’s a hard person to get along with.
1: How so?
2: Well, he’s always bragging about himself.
2: Yeah. He’s constantly trying to make other people look bad, too.
In the conversation, you heard two examples of the speaker using the present progressive to complain – “he’s always bragging…” and “he’s constantly trying…” Here, the speaker is showing annoyance at a series of repeated actions.
Remember the lines from Samantha Fish’s song? Let’s listen again:
Somebody's always trying to take my baby away…
By now, you can probably tell that the song is about expressing annoyance at a repeated action – somebody is always trying to take away her boyfriend.
To be clear: English speakers generally use the simple tense with the adverb always to talk about repeated, everyday actions. But in some cases, such as with complaining, they sometimes use the progressive.
The next time you are watching films or television, listen carefully for examples of when speakers show annoyance. You can start to notice how they change between the simple tense and the progressive tense. Try to listen for the adverbs that the speakers use, and make note of them.
A quick note about complaining and expressing annoyance: while it is useful to understand the grammar behind such communication, we suggest that you be careful about expressing your feelings. You can read another Everyday Grammar report on that subject on our website.
I'm John Russell.
And I’m Anne Ball.
John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
* Conrad, Susan and Biber, Douglas. Real Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach to English. Pearson Longman. 2009
Words in This Story
grammar – n. the system, rules and structure of a language
progressive tense – n. grammar the use of a verb to show repeated or continuous action
conversation – n. a talk involving two people or a small group of people
patronize – v. to talk to (someone) in a way that shows that you believe you are more intelligent or better than other people
brag – v. to talk about yourself, your successes or family in a way that makes you appear better than others
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