Alex Steer

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We do love dummy verbs. We are loving them right now.

568 words | ~3 min

Walking through London Bridge tube station the other morning, I heard the following pre-recorded announcement, or something like it:

Ladies and gentlemen, we do apologize for the reduced gate entry to the Northern Line.

I've heard similar announcements on the tube. Am I right in thinking that the emphatic do-insertion is fairly new? I don't recall having heard it before quite recently. Of course, the pre-recorded messages may vary from station to station.

Before this heads too far into trainspotter territory, it's worth pausing to think about the effect of that dummy verb. As well as being emphatic, it renders the rather dry 'we apologize for the reduced gate entry' into something perhaps slightly less formal, as well as more heartfelt. Compare 'I apologize' with 'I do apologize' when someone's in your seat on a train. (You could research this, but you'd spend a lot on tickets.) This may be because going round the houses a bit with one's language is a way of seeming unguarded, and of taking the edge off what could otherwise seem very pointed. Oddly, in English, it seems the emphatic insertion can have two levels of intensity. 'I do apologize' can be an politeness that suggests you really mean it if it comes after 'Excuse me, you're in my seat', and something much more heartfelt if it comes after 'The problem with you is you never apologize!' (Here, though, the emphasis is a result of using a repetition of the main verb from the previous statement in contradicting of its assertion.)

Does the same blunting effect apply to the use of the present continuous with verbs expressing emotional states? 'I'm loving your work', 'I'm hating this pub': here, perhaps the circumlocution is a kind of circumspection, a way of saying something but not too directly. Or too permanently: the present continuous differs from the do/am-insertion because it also places the expressed emotion within a timeframe, one that may become discontinuous. 'I hate this pub' is fairly final. 'I am hating this pub' can refer more openly to this pub as it is now, or simply to how you're feeling about it now. If the crowds disperse, the music on the jukebox gets better, and the prices drop for happy hour, you can be loving this pub in no time. But consider your disappointment if someone you had your eye on finally turned to you and admitted, 'I'm loving you'.

All this, and I haven't mentioned McDonalds once.

Update: Or Facebook, either. Some commentators have credited their long-standing insistence that status updates start with 'is' with the popularization of this time-limited emphatic use of the present continuous. My sense is that it's been very common for longer than that, though. A possible contender for its upsurge is Do You Really Like It?, a 2001 garage classic from one-hit wonder DJ Piped Piper and the Masters of Ceremonies, with its call-and-response refrain:

Do you really like it? Is it, is it wicked? We're lovin' it, lovin' it, lovin' it! We're lovin it' like this!

Though this is total guesswork, and really just an attempt to get more strange lyrics onto this blog under the feeble cover of sociolinguistics.

# Alex Steer (09/07/2008)