Monday 26 August 2013

On looking very UK

A correspondent writes to my website but provides no contact email address in the relevant box, so I can't acknowledge other than via this blog. He has noticed the sentence, written as a response to a Facebook picture, 'You are looking very UK'. Apparently some people have said such a usage is incorrect, and he wants to know what I think.

The critics are living in the past. One of the most interesting contemporary trends in English syntax is the way the present progressive has been increasing in frequency in recent decades. The point has been well studied by corpus linguists. The steady rise of this form can be traced from the 17th century. There was a sharp rise in the 19th which continued into the 20th, with British English moving a tad faster than American. A famous example, which I've mentioned before, is the McDonald's slogan 'I'm lovin' it', which not so long ago would have appeared as 'I love it'.

The change is spreading through the lexicon, but with different rates for different verbs. The 'most stative' verbs, such as know and need, are taking up the usage more slowly - at least, in British English (compared, say, with Indian English, where cognitive verbs have been taking the progressive for a long time) - but verbs lower down any scale of stativity (such as love, want, enjoy) have been illustrating the usage for some time now. So I'm not at all surprised to see 'You are looking very UK' emerge alongside 'You look very UK', adding the kind of aspectual distinction that the progressive provides.

If anyone wants to follow this up in the research literature, a good source is here.