Monday, April 11, 2011

Learning English: Bjorn Borg Style or “I'm sitting in Stockholm”

(photo from weheartit)

OK,  Bjorn Borg is a bit before my time – but rumor has it, he was a constant abuser of this particular English mistake common to Swedish speakers.

(Please note: I KNOW that Swedes are awesome English speakers, and I am only an OK Swedish speaker. That's why I began my language commentary on this blog by pointing out my own mistakes before looking at others)

For some reason Swedes LOVE the 'ings'.

 Here's a common business introduction in the circles I run in:

'Hello, and Welcome to Company X. My name is Sven Svensson. I am working at department Y. I am sitting in Stockholm at our head office.' (He says as we are standing in the reception).

'Hello Sven, I am SurvivinginSweden'

'Please hang your clothes over here. Do you like Stockholm? I am living here ten years. Would you like some coffee? I am drinking it every morning.'

(sorry, I ran out of -ing examples in my brief dialogue. Sven looks a lot dorkier here than most of the great folk I work with)

I know the hang your clothes bit always gets a laugh. But I cannot figure out really where all of the 'ings' come from. As far as I am aware (which isn't very) the tense, present continuous, 'I am sitting, I am walking' doesn't really exist in Swedish.

The ings, in this tense,  are used in English to show something that is happening right now and is of a temporary nature (the explanation is really not THIS simple, but it's the gist of it). When talking about things like work it would be better to say “I work at department Y and I am based in Stockholm” or something of that nature. And if it is a habit, you would say 'I drink coffee every day'

I hate being a grammar cop, since I take a rather lazy approach here. I guess I just am curious as to why this particular error is so pervasive with Scandinavian speakers.


  1. Probably because the direct translation of for example 'drink' is 'dricka', so to a swede "I drink coffe every day" feels like "Jag dricka kaffe varje dag" which is wrong in swedish. The correct form is 'dricker', the 'a' is lost and 'er' is concatenated to the word.
    Now he gets a little confused and grabs the first (and probably only) thing he knows can be concatenated in english: 'ing'. "I am drinking coffee every day."

  2. It's quite simple - it's because we have two ways to say something that can only be said one way in many languages. (I've noticed the same speaking to Germans and others).
    The distinction between "I am drinking" and "I drink" requires you to learn extra rules that don't exist in these languages, so only those who are more adept at languages learn them. If you learn and practice with people who also aren't sure about this, that make it harder too.
    Compounded to that is that they are taught that "I am drinking" coffee is the continuous form - but if you mean something you do every day, that's habitual rather than continuous, since you aren't drinking constantly from one day to the next (I hope!)

    I study Ancient Greek and we have the same problem - there are more ways to make a verb past tense than we have in English - so it's easy to get the wrong one.

  3. I am not sure if my husband does this and I am just used to it or not. What he does do though is confuses were and was, he is in school here in CA and when I proof read his papers those are always mixed up.

  4. This is definitely something I've noticed with Scandinavian and German speakers. It makes them all sound so active all the time.
    Perhaps "ing" is just fun to say.

  5. Like Shorty said - there's no distinction in Swedish, so it's up to the speaker to figure our when each form is applied. (It's the same thing with the 'w' sound - it doesn't appear in Swedish, so Swedes have a tendency to use it haphazardly in place of 'v'.) I never even understood that there was a rule for when to apply the 'ing' and not (a flaw in my English education, I guess) until I took French in 7th grade and realized it does a similar thing with past tense.

  6. @Mazui - interesting, I hadn't thought of it like that, but that makes a lot of sense.

    @Shorty - I know, continuous is a pretty confusing name for the whole thing- but thanks for the Swedish grammar lesson, I kind of didn't take too many formal English classes, mostly just learned through speaking - which has its positives and negatives

    @hemborgwife - I think losing the -ing is a sign, for me atleast, that someone has spent some time abroad in an English speaking country, or is really into learning language

    @anon - ing is pretty fun, at times, I guess - maybe after a few beers?

    @ t-anna - true, just as I get confused when they mix the Vs and Ws in the phonebook! (well, atleast back when I used to use a phonebook :)

  7. @ t-anna I experienced that recently talking about Star Wars (don't ask) with a Swedish friend - he kept saying Darth Wader and I had to concentrate really hard not to giggle picturing Darth Vader with flippers and a snorkel...

  8. Well said! I always notice the -ing words. Also a favorite: shal we make a meeting now?