October 22, 2012

Polish-ing your English

Take a look at your English and see how many times you've used the construction Verb + “-ing” in your communication. For a native Polish speaker, chances are good that it frequently appears in English communication.

A special thanks must go out to Filip Witkowski and the team at Taptera in Warsaw for highlighting this topic. Filip noticed that many native Polish speakers use “-ing” endings on verbs quite often. Sure enough, when I checked my email correspondence with native Polish speakers, everyone was using “-ing” “-ing” “-ing” all over the place. Some of it correct, some of it awkward, and some of it incorrect.

Putting the -ING in English

What I don't want to do is bore you with English lessons. What I do want is to give non-native English speakers quick “hacks” that help them communicate better in English without the fuss. That being said, it's important to quickly review the fundamentals before we can identify ways to hack language.

So here's the quick summary. In English, the -ing ending is added to verbs in two basic cases. You use it when you (A) want to make the progressive tense (e.g. I am cooking) or (B) when you want to turn a verb into a noun called a gerund (e.g. Cooking is fun.). In this post we will only be talking about the former, progressive usage in English.

For the progressive tense to work, you will need to use some form of “to be” in English in conjunction with the verb and -ing.

Forming the progressive tense:

Subject + To Be Verb + -ing Tense
I am cook-ing 1st person, singular, present
He is work-ing 2nd person, singular, present
We were talk-ing 1st person, plural, past
I will be cook-ing 1st person, singular, future

Easy, right? As you can see in the third column, there are present, past, and future progressive tenses.

Here's the problem

The Polish language has two verb classes, the perfective (e.g. zadzwonić) and the imperfective (e.g. dzwonić) which is a concept known as "aspect" in linguistics. In Polish, these aspects appear as morphologically distinct words and are easy to tell apart like pije/wypije, pisze/napisze, etc.

Unfortunately, English is not so classy, and decided not to have any clear aspect. Thus, English has no rigid distinction between perfective and imperfective verb states like Polish does. Much of the distinction is either implied in the sentence construction or ignored altogether. For Polish non-native English speakers this usually means a mistake will be made when translating between the two languages. From here, I'd like to point out two issues:

Issue 1:

Polish natives don't match the imperfective past (PL) with simple past tense (EN) in English.

Simply put, Polish native speakers use too much continuous “do-ing” in English, when they can just say something is done. This is not technically an incorrect utterance, but it does sound odd to native English speakers. Someone once said this to me:

We were wondering if you were making the presentation with Keynote or if you are making it with Powerpoint?

Compare this with:

Did you make the presentation with Keynote or Powerpoint?

The second example is much more clear, concise, and direct, and keeps the tense (past) the same across the sentence.

The gap in translation lies in the way Polish native speakers think about the past imperfective form of robiłeś being directly translated as “you were making it [past]” into English, and the perfective form of zrobiłeś being directly translated as “you made it.” In this case, English usually only cares about the tense, so the last translation “you made it” is typically a much better construction for both scenarios. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, when describing an action in the past, “I was showering when you called”, the continuous form (shower-ing) must be used as it was continuing when something happened.

If possible, try to use simple past tense in English when something occurred in the past. Check the Polish verb equivalents. If the Polish verb is in the imperfective past (e.g. jadłem, piłem, spałem) you know that you might need to drop -ing in English, and instead use simple past tense (e.g. ate, drank, slept).

Issue 2:

Polish natives overlap the imperfective past (PL) with past progressive forms (EN) in English.

This one is a bit tricky. The simple explanation is that Polish and English do not share the same progression forms, and -ing is overused when talking about past events. As a result, Polish native speakers tend to take the English past progressive form, and apply it to a wider range of constructions than English allows. Take the following example:

Polish Examples Direct Translation in English
a. Dzwoniłem [imp], ale nie odbierałeś [imp]. I was calling but you weren't answering.
b. Zadzwoniłem [perf], ale nie odebrałeś [perf]. I called but you didn't answer.

Example (a) illustrates the most common utterance used to indicate that a call to someone went unanswered. Example (b) is awkward, and perhaps semantically incorrect, because zadzwoniłem indicates that the call action was completed (e.g. a successful phone call where a conversation was finished), but then the sentence goes on to say that someone didn't answer the phone!

Now let's look at the English utterances:

English Examples Actual Meaning in English (EN)
c. I was calling but you weren't answering. This is in the past progressive, and technically the information here is not complete. “was calling you” needs to indicate duration, and this sentence does not. It would lead someone to ask “when?” It's a useful construction, say, when you want your significant other to feel bad about not picking up your call! Since the time is unspecified, this construction is highly ambiguous.
d. I called but you didn't answer. Simple past means you called, maybe once or more, but there was no answer. This is much more common.

On the surface, (a) and (c) are the same, but in English and Polish they have divergent meanings. In example (b), Polish doesn't allow the perfective progressive form, while English (d) prefers it, despite the fact that that they have the same surface forms.

Quick tips

  • Use -ing when you want to be ambiguous to a native English speaker.
  • Try to use simple present or simple past tense when possible.
  • Make your language more direct. Verbs ending in -ing are passive by nature.

If you're looking to nerd out further on this topic, check out the difference between dynamic and stative verbs in English. Only some English verbs (dynamic) are allowed to be in the past progressive form, while others are not.

Better Worse
I called and you didn't answer I was calling and you weren't answering
He develops great mobile apps He is developing great mobile apps
We invest in great startups We are investing in great startups
I currently live in Warsaw I am currently living in Warsaw
I managed a team of 10 web developers / I was managing a team of 10 people who were developing X product

The first column's constructions are stronger. Why? Because you, the subject, are the performer of the actions. Saying “I manage a restaurant” tells me that you run the show, and probably enjoy doing it. Saying “I am managing a restaurant” sounds like someone gave you the position to do menial management tasks.

So, the takeaway is for Polish natives to simply reduce -inging when using English. Your speech and text will seem much closer to natural English, and it helps to make your expressions assertive rather than passive.

Special thanks to Agnieszka Lenko-Szymańska for her insight into Polish-English linguistics.


  1. Replace "robiłesz" with "robiłeś" and "zrobiłesz" with "zrobiłeś".

  2. Thanks! Just caught it.


    ...Annnnnd...I'll be here with the bad jokes all week folks...

  3. Hey Brenden, thanks a lot for this article! I speak English reasonably well, but this kind of subtle mistakes like you described are really hard to catch. Moreover, kudos for coming up with an explanation (especially that the aspect differences are kinda non-trivial to notice).

    Anyway, your blog has just gained a new subscriber :-)

    1. Thanks Ryszard. Anything in particular you'd like to see this blog cover?

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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