Corpus Pragmatics

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 289–311 | Cite as

What’s Left to Say About Irish English Progressives? “I’m Not Going Having Any Conversation with You”

  • Aoife Ní Mhurchú
Original Paper


This paper examines progressive forms in an Irish English context. Through corpus based analysis, it identifies a number of non-standard progressive structures which are then isolated for more qualitative discourse analysis, drawing upon past studies of aspect in Irish English, and applying a pragmatic framework, where appropriate, to discuss issues surrounding these structures. The primary data are accessed from the Limerick Corpus of Irish English, a 1-million-word corpus of spoken Irish English, and then cross-referenced using three other corpora including from British and American English, in order to allow for cross-varietal comparisons. The study finds that the progressive acts as a softener in imperative structures or structures with a similar illocutionary force and as an intensifier in the habitual do be V-ing. Of particular note is be going + V-ing, a much-neglected structure in studies of Irish English to date, but which this study found to have a unique syntax and pragmatic function.


Irish English Progressive aspect Corpus linguistics Pragmatics 

Corpus Linguistics, Pragmatics, and Irish English

This paper looks at the pragmatics of progressive forms in Irish English (IrE) through a corpus linguistic lens. The study of pragmatics as contextual meaning (Yule 1996: 3) and contextual influences (McCoard 1978: 4) has benefited greatly from the vast amounts of discourse that language corpora provides and the field of Irish English is no different. Indeed, studies in IrE and in particular IrE pragmatics have grown in tandem with the development of corpora and corpus linguistics.

In 1984, however, Peter Trudgill wrote that it was “a matter for some regret that British and Irish linguists have carried out comparatively little research into many of the languages spoken [in the British Isles]” (Trudgill 1984: ix). While this may have been overstating the case somewhat in the context of Irish English, there was undoubtedly a particular dearth of raw linguistic data. Early attempts at creating a linguistic survey of Irish English (Barry 1981) expanding on the work of Henry (1957) focused on phonology and indeed so did much of the research conducted around this time (e.g. Harris 1985; Hickey 1986). As momentum gathered in Irish English studies in the years following Trudgill’s comments, so the scope of linguistic areas under scrutiny broadened to include syntax and language contact, among others. In the absence of a database of real language from which to draw, however, researchers were forced to rely on literary texts (e.g. Rickford 1986), personal observations (e.g. Kallen 1989) and sheer intuition for their primary source data.

The turn of the millennium saw the arrival on stream of a number of Irish English corpora and these have heralded a new era in Irish English studies. In particular, the Limerick Corpus of Irish English (henceforth LCIE) (Farr et al. 2004) and the Irish English component of the International Corpus of English (henceforth ICE-IRL) (Kirk et al. 2007) have proved prolific resources for researchers, while the use of corpus-based methodologies has allowed for studies of the variety to be conducted across a much broader spectrum than was previously possible, including examinations of gender (Amador-Moreno 2016), age (Murphy 2010), ethnicity (Clancy 2011) and cross-border distinctions in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (Kallen and Kirk 2001).

A further development in 2005 cemented the position of corpus linguistics in Irish English studies. Barron and Schneider’s The Pragmatics of Irish English (Barron and Schneider 2005) was a landmark publication, not only because of its focus on a previously neglected area of language—pragmatics—but also because it brought together a critical mass of work across different methodologies, namely corpus-based and discourse completion tasks. Variational Pragmatics (Schneider and Barron 2008) followed and this paved the way for future studies of IrE by highlighting the efficacy of cross-varietal corpus-based methodologies, culminating in the seminal work by Amador-Moreno et al. (2015) Pragmatic Markers in Irish English.

Among the areas of pragmatics that have thus far been investigated in Irish English are: discourse markers, including actually (Kallen 2015); like (Clancy 2011; Schweinberger 2012; Amador-Moreno 2015; Nestor and Regan 2015); now (Binchy 2005; Clancy and Vaughan 2012; Migge 2015); och (Corrigan 2015); and sure (Amador-Moreno and McCafferty 2015). Discourse patterns have also been examined, particularly adjacency pairs (Schneider 2005), tag questions (Barron 2015), turn openers (McCarthy 2015), turn initiators (Farr and Riordan 2015), hedging (Farr and O’Keeffe 2002) and vocatives (McCarthy and O’Keeffe 2003; Murphy and Farr 2012; Clancy 2015). The pragmatics of Irish English has also been explored within specific areas: the media (Kelly-Holmes 2005; O’Keeffe 2005; Millar 2015; O’Sullivan 2015), family discourse (Clancy 2005, 2011, 2015), transactional contexts (Binchy 2005) and university settings (Farr 2005); as well as in specific linguistic areas: the adjective grand (Hickey 2017); taboo language (Murphy 2009); religious references (Farr and Murphy 2009) and the be after V-ing structure as a marker of perfective aspect (O’Keeffe and Amador-Moreno 2009; Amador-Moreno and O’Keeffe 2018). The progressive aspect has thus far received much less attention in terms of its pragmatics (but see Amador-Moreno 2006: 173–175; Kirk 2015: 111), and it is therefore among the aims of this paper to address this gap in our knowledge.

Progressives in Irish English

For the purposes of this study, a progressive structure is understood to be “realized by auxiliary verb be and the -ing form of a lexical verb” (Carter and McCarthy 2006: 917). Other V-ing forms have been studied in the context of Irish English (namely ‘subordinating and’—see Filppula 1999) but for this present study will be omitted on the basis that this structure is not marked for tense, mood or aspect through the use of be auxiliary. Further, be after V-ing is excluded from this article as it denotes perfective aspect. For a comprehensive account of be after V-ing in Irish English, see O’Keeffe and Amador-Moreno (2009) and Amador-Moreno and O’Keeffe (2018).

In a discussion about the influence that corpus linguistics has brought to bear on the study of Late Modern English, Beal (2012) documents the study of progressive forms from Dennis (1940) to Strang (1982) and Smitterberg (2005) and finds that corpus linguistics has indeed helped us to gain a broader understanding of the rise of the progressive since the seventeenth century, one which includes more statistically robust findings, with shades of nuance as to style, variety and even the influence of gender. Equally in other varieties of English, corpus-based studies have documented the use of the progressive in Outer and Expanding Circle varieties of English (Edwards 2014; Kruger and Van Rooy 2017).

A study of the progressive aspect in IrE holds interest for many reasons, one of which is the higher frequency with which progressives are used in the variety when compared with standard British English (Bliss 1984: 144). One also has greater freedom in the lexical verbs one can use with progressive structures in IrE (ibid.). While early studies of the variety, such as that of Bliss (ibid.) and Dennis (1940) were based largely on intuition, attested data from grammars and literary sources, corpus-based studies of IrE carried out in more recent years nonetheless support Bliss’ assertions of variety and frequency of progressive structures. Ronan (2001) finds a high frequency of progressive forms with non-stative verbs in her Dublin-based corpus (Ronan 2001: 52). Filppula (2003) highlights the Celtic connection of the progressive via south-western English English (EngE) and IrE. Filppula et al. (2008) look more widely at this Celtic connection and compare EngE progressives with three varieties of Celtic English including IrE, which again features the highest number of progressives across all five corpora used.

McCafferty and Amador Moreno (2012) is a first diachronic study of Irish English progressives in the style of Dennis (1940). They compare three corpora from Old, Middle and Early Modern English, Older Scots and nineteenth-century English respectively (the Helsinki Corpus, Helsinki Corpus of Older Scots and Corpus of Nineteenth Century English), all of which show not only an increase in the use of the progressive over time (between 1500 and 1900) but also higher levels of usage in the correspondence sub-corpora of each. They find a parallel increase in the Corpus of Irish English Correspondence (CORIECOR), though from an earlier starting point than other varieties and with a much higher frequency than, for example, British English from the late eighteenth century onwards, accounted for by a higher density of (i) stative verbs in the progressive in line with Ronan (2001) and Filppula et al. (2008) (ii) progressive infinitives with modal auxiliaries (but not would or used to) and (iii) be going to future (McCafferty and Amador Moreno 2012). Kirk (2015) is both a diachronic and synchronic study of the progressive and identifies no fewer than twenty functions of the form in Irish English with 25% more examples in ICE-IRL than in its British English counterpart (ICE-GB, Kirk 2015: 100). This mirrors earlier work carried out by Kallen (2013) which compared the separate components of ICE-IRL (i.e ICE-ROI from the Republic of Ireland and ICE-NI from Northern Ireland) with their GB and Canadian counterparts, and found progressives in stative verbs to have a higher incidence in the IrE corpora.

However, in addition to the increased scope and frequency of standard progressive structures, the variety also offers unique forms not only in terms of syntax but also pragmatics and it is to these that we now turn. Much of the literature on these structures focuses on form rather than function, and empirical studies are few. Where corpora have been consulted, frequencies are given.

Do Be V-ing (e.g. I Don’t Know What You Do Be Thinking About at All Over There—LCIE)

Though similar in syntax to the Standard English present progressive, save for the do-auxiliary, this structure does not express progressivity, but rather highlights the habitual nature of the main verb. Gachelin accredits Irish English with offering “the exceptional luxury of three habitual forms” (Gachelin 1997: 39), one of which is the do + be + V-ing structure. It has been variously termed Consuetudinal Present Progressive (Bliss 1984: 143), Frequentative Durative (Henry 1957: 170) and Habitual Perfective (Hickey 2005). Filppula (1999) devotes considerable attention in his corpus-based study of IrE to this structure, which he terms generally periphrastic do, intended to cover all the functions of this structure in Irish English (consuetudinal, iterative, habitual and generic). Under this umbrella term, Filppula includes a number of other syntactic structures, including do + infinitive, do + be + complement, be/bees + -ing/complement. Bliss subdivides this Consuetudinal Present Progressive into two different structures: the do + be + V-ing structure mentioned here, which he maintains is a feature of a ‘general’ IrE, while a be + V-ing structure is preferred in Northern IrE (Bliss 1984: 143).

Debate has surrounded the question of the origins of do be V-ing in Irish English, with two main schools of thought emerging: the substratal influence of Irish on the one hand, and the superstratal influence of Early Modern English on the other. The parallels between the structure and the Irish language are plain to see; Irish has two present tense verbs translatable as ‘be’ in English. (It should be noted that these verbs are distinct from the two ‘be’ verbs of Romance languages such as ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ in Spanish.) is punctual, habitual, as the following sentences demonstrate:






be [punctual]


on + me


‘I am hungry.’ (now) (Standard English)







be [habitual]


on + me


‘I am hungry.’ (often) (StE)


‘I do be hungry.’ (IrE) 1

With the availability of the latter habitual in Irish, comes the possibility of two habitual forms for non-substantive verbs: a simple form, as in [2a] and a compound structure [2b] where the same habitual (with inflection and either followed by or fused with a subject) can be used with a verbal noun to denote an action that is not only iterative but also durative. The latter, Hickey explains, expresses not only that an action is repeated but “that it lasts for a certain period each time it is carried out” (Hickey 2000: 111). Harris (1984b: 306) similarly distinguishes between two habituals, both of which indicate a “plurality of events” but with the former “viewed as a self-contained whole” and the latter “viewed with regard to its internal structure (e.g. duration)”. (For further discussion on the differences between these two broadly-termed ‘habituals’ see Kallen 1989: 4; Filppula 1999: 131–132).





(gach lá).


write [iterative]


a letter

every day.


‘She writes a letter.’ (every day) (StE)




ag scríobh


(gach lá).


be [habitual]


write [verbal noun]

a letter

every day


‘She writes a letter.’ (every day) (StE)


‘She does be writing a letter.’ (every day) (IrE)

According to the substratal theory, it is the absence of this latter structure in English that then gives rise to the need for an alternative habitual form. The question of how that habitual came to be formed using do as an auxiliary verb is less certain, and this is where the superstratal theory comes into play. (For a comprehensive discussion on the origins of do be V-ing see Filppula 1999; Hickey 2000: 113–115; Filppula et al. 2008).

The frequency of do be V-ing in Irish English is much-disputed. Early attested studies of IrE point to this being a classic structure associated with the variety, though less so amongst educated speakers (Bliss 1984: 143). More recent corpus-based studies paint a different picture, however. Kallen (1989) is surprised by a low frequency of do be V-ing in his personal observations (Kallen 1989: 7), leading him, like Harris (1984a: 307), to dismiss do be V-ing as a derivative of be/bees V-ing with do-support for negative or imperative. Filppula’s Corpus of Hiberno-English also recorded a low frequency for the structure (Filppula 1999: 132). Hickey (2005) points to the importance of the phonological realisation of the do/does as an unstressed auxiliary in do be V-ing in a process of cliticization in his dialect survey of Dublin English, giving [ˈhɪ dəbɪ ˈɛʊt] for He does be out (Hickey 2005:118). In practical terms, this may result in a form very similar to He’d (= would) be out, the auxiliary would also functioning as a marker of habituality in Irish English (Kirk 2015: 93) and as a hedging device (Farr and O’Keeffe 2002).

Don’t Be V-ing (e.g. Don’t Be Embarrassing Me Now—LCIE)

A structure often linked to do be V-ing is the imperative Don’t be V-ing. Though widely acknowledged as a feature of Irish English “even among educated speakers” (Bliss 1984: 145) (but by no means exclusive to that variety—see Williams 2001 for an account of progressive imperatives in standard British English), this structure receives little more than passing references in most studies (notable exceptions include Hickey 2007; Kallen 2013 both of which include corpus-based data). The structure is often subsumed under treatments of the aforementioned do be V-ing (e.g. Kallen 1989; Filppula 1999) though Filppula does concede that the imperative mood does not carry the same notion of iterativity as its indicative counterpart (Filppula 1999: 131). From a syntactic perspective, it is interesting to note the various forms of the (negative) progressive imperative in the literature. Kallen (2013: 88) notes its appearance with the preposition at functioning as a dynamic verb:


Don’t be at them, they’re dirty. (Kallen 2013: 89)

Previous corpus-based studies have shown conflicting frequency levels for Don’t be V-ing. McCafferty and Amador Moreno (2012: 278) find only 5 examples of Don’t be V-ing in the Corpus of Irish English Correspondence, all occurring in letters from the 1870s and 80s, almost a century later than it is believed to have established itself (Hickey 2007: 223). (Indeed Hickey argues that habitual do be V-ing may have emanated from the already-established Don’t be V-ing in the early nineteenth century.) Kallen (2013) describes the use of negative progressive imperatives as “widespread” (Kallen 2013: 88) though this is from a combination of corpus-based and attested data as well as literary sources. In contrast, Filppula’s (1999) Corpus of Hiberno-English recorded a low frequency of Don’t be V-ing (only 5 tokens) (Filppula 1999: 132), though again this is likely due to the issue of corpus design, where corpora made up of interviews and oral histories, such as that of Filppula (1999), would be unlikely to contain many examples of structures such as imperatives.

The origins of Don’t be V-ing can be more easily traced to the substratal influence of Irish where a similar progressive imperative form exists. Hickey notes the prosodic similarity between the first two syllables of the Irish Ná bí and the Irish English Don’t be, suggesting that this may be a contributing factor to the survival of this structure in Irish English (Hickey 2007: 223):


ag labhairt

mar sin.


[Negative particle]

be [imperative]

at + [verbal noun]

like that


‘Don’t speak like that.’ (StE)


‘Don’t be speaking like that.’ (IrE)

Clarke (2004) notes the presence of the negative progressive imperative in Newfoundland English (NE) - whose source varieties include Irish English - in her study of attested and corpus-based NE data. Clarke remarks on the use of the form to denote disapproval (Clarke 2004: 305), but in the examples from CORIECOR all but one show its use in statements of encouragement and reassurance:


dont be fretting every person in this world gets their turn or trouble.


(James Hagan, 28.01.1884 cited in McCafferty and Amador Moreno 2012: 278)

Clarke also notes its use in the idiomatic phrase “Don’t be talking!” which itself acts as a response token and marker of engaged listenership between interlocutors (Kallen 2013: 89). This pragmatic function is particularly evident in the metalinguistic data in sentence [6] from the Northern Irish Corpus of Transcribed Speech:


Oh, I enjoyed every minute of it. Lord, we used to have some times. Oh, don’t be talking <laughs>. (Filppula 2008: 80)

In his account of progressive imperatives in Standard British English, Williams identifies two distinct types: Type A refers to simultaneously occurring future events (either in the very near future or at a more distant ‘detached’ future time) and can be used both in the second person singular or in the first person plural with Let’s (e.g. (Let’s) Be working when the boss comes! Williams 2001: 33). In this sense, the use of the progressive form is entirely consistent with its other applications: present/past/future progressives to denote an action or situation occurring around now/a past time reference/a future time reference and possibly parallel to or interrupted by another action or state. Type B progressive imperatives, on the other hand, are used to invoke immediate action to a present situation, with the implication that this present situation includes a ‘piece of the past’ (Williams 2001: 38).

It is this final element that Timmis draws upon in his study of negative progressive imperatives across a number of varieties of English (Timmis 20152), arguing that what ultimately distinguishes the negative progressive imperative from its non-progressive counterpart is that it seems to convey an awareness on the part of the speaker of the listener’s predisposition towards a certain behaviour, so that a statement such as “Don’t be falling off your bike” (rather than “Don’t fall off your bike”) hints at the failure on the part of the listener to remain astride a bicycle on more than one occasion in the past. Timmis further suggests that this prior knowledge of the speaker has the effect of softening the imperative which he thus terms the “affective imperative”. This follows on from Gachelin’s observations of the structure as “emotional and insistent” (Gachelin 1997: 35) and indeed Dennis’ earlier predictions that the rise of progressive structures including the negative progressive imperative would arise out of the “field of emotional connotation” (Dennis 1940: 865). In their corpus-based treatment of the pragmatic marker now, Clancy and Vaughan (2012) find that this discourse marker often occurs in utterance-final position with the negative imperative in Irish English as a softener.

Of further note and particular relevance to this present study, is Clarke’s mention of the structure can’t be V-ing during her treatment of the negative progressive imperative (Clarke 2010: 78). It is important here to distinguish between its deontic and epistemic functions. We are concerned with the former, where the modal verb expresses prohibition rather than speculation or deduction. To date, this has not featured in descriptions of Irish English syntax,3 despite Clarke linking the form in Newfoundland and Labrador English directly to Irish English origins (Clarke 2010: 78).

Future Forms

The future form be going to followed by an infinitive receives some mention in Dennis (1940) where its appearance in IrE texts between 1900 and 1932 is compared with British and American English. It features more than British English (BrE) though less than American English (AmE) (Dennis 1940: 863). The future progressive will be V-ing for the same time period features 10 times in her IrE data, once in BrE and not at all in the AmE data.

Kirk (2015) identifies two future forms in his corpus-based study of IrE progressives (he discounts the aforementioned be going to future on the basis that it is a grammaticalized form in its own right), namely the “futurate progressive” (Kirk 2015: 93) and the “WILL progressive” (“future-as-a-matter-of-course progressive) (ibid.: 95). The former is the familiar use of the present progressive for future arrangements (e.g. I’m going back next Sunday—ICE-IRL, Kirk 2015: 93). The latter (e.g. You will be working on all three areas—ICE-IRL, Kirk 2015: 95) has received more attention in recent literature due to its increase in the twentieth century, an increase which some claim is due to pragmatic function, namely that the use of this form allows the speaker to place themselves at a remove from the verb itself and does not denote any volition on the part of the speaker (e.g. Celle and Smith 2010 and Smith and Leech 2013: 88 cited in Kirk 2015: 112).

A final futurate form worthy of mention here is be going V-ing (e.g. Don’t be goin’ tellin’ her, you. Henry 1957: 187). It is marked by its absence from most of the literature on IrE; as far as can be ascertained it appears only in Henry (1957) who notes its usage as an ingressive verb or to denote “psychological disposition to action” (Henry 1957: 186). Three of the four examples given by Henry are imperative structures (the exception being They went tellin’ her Henry 1957: 174). Indeed, it also features in Kirk (2015):


Don’t be going wandering onto them (ICE-IRL S1A-043 in Kirk 2015: 97)

but only to highlight the use of the negative progressive imperative and not as a feature of Irish English in its own right. It will be dealt with in the context of this study in section four.

Data and Methodology

This research draws upon and places itself within the growing body of corpus-based studies of Irish English. It makes use of both quantitative and qualitative data analysis and indeed is strengthened by doing so. Data was extracted using word frequency lists and concordances with WordSmith Tools 7 (Scott 2016). The main corpus used in this research was the Limerick Corpus of Irish English (henceforth LCIE—Farr et al. 2004), a one-million-word corpus of spoken Irish English, comprised of conversations among speakers whose directional aims were either that of a collaborative task, collaborative idea or information provision. Each text is further categorised according to context: pedagogic, professional, socialising, intimate or transactional, a design matrix which is in keeping with other spoken English corpora such as the Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English—CANCODE (McCarthy 1998). The majority of texts fall into either the socialising or intimate category (Farr et al. 2004), which as “Findings and Discussion/Progressives and Pragmatics” section shows, will prove to be a key factor in the findings of this study. Speakers were aged between 14 and 78, represented males and females equally, and came from a range of counties within the Republic of Ireland.

Due to the informal nature of the data from LCIE, it was seen as important for the overall findings of the study that another IrE corpus be used. Corpus design is something that concerns all corpus linguists. Indeed, even in her pre-corpus era study on progressives, Dennis (1940) designed her ‘corpus’ of Modern English written texts to include prose fiction and drama, which she knew to be more representative of speech and thus more fruitful in terms of examples of progressive form usage. Similarly, in this study, in order to balance out the findings that such colloquial usage as can be found in LCIE, the spoken component of ICE-IRL (Kirk et al. 2007) was also used. ICE-IRL is the Irish component of the International Corpus of English project and is considered a corpus of educated speech. It also comprises scripted broadcasts and it is these two characteristics that contrast with the composition of LCIE. While each sub-corpus of the ICE project is 1 million words of both spoken and written language, the spoken component was isolated for use in this present study to ensure that all corpora were comparable in terms of their composition. For the remainder of this article, ICE-IRL will refer to this spoken component only.

For comparative purposes, two further variety-based corpora were used, namely the Santa Barbara Corpus (du Bois et al. 2000) and the British National Corpus (BNC) Sampler spoken component (Burnard 2005). The Santa Barbara Corpus (henceforth SBC) makes up much of the spoken component for the American English sub-corpus of ICE. As such, it is comparable to ICE-IRL in terms of its design matrix with one notable exception: ICE sub-corpora subscribe to a fixed set of text types which includes scripted language. Thus, in this study, while ICE-IRL contains scripted spoken data, SBC is made up solely of naturally-occurring language. The BNC Sampler is a 2-million-word corpus designed to reflect the composition of the full BNC which consists of 100 million words. Ten million of these are spoken. The Sampler is itself also sub-divided—1 million each for the spoken and written component. Henceforth BNC will refer only to the 1 million-word spoken component. For further detail on the four corpora used in this study, see Table 1.
Table 1

An overview of the four corpora used in this study



ICE-IRL (spoken)

BNC sampler (spoken)


Word count

1 million


1 million


Text type









Non face-to-face








Non face-to-face



Scripted and unscripted

Scripted and unscripted


Geographical distribution

Rep. of Ireland

50% Rep. of Ireland

50% Northern Ireland

Geographically representative across UK


At the outset of this study, a number of progressive features were identified from the literature and searches conducted on these in the corpora, some of which have been expounded in previous studies (e.g. see O’Keeffe and Amador-Moreno 2009 on be after V-ing) and so will not be covered here. Others were retrieved from a direct engagement with the corpus, ultimately resulting in a combined methodology of corpus-driven and corpus-based data (Tognini-Bonelli 2001). From these searches, four structures emerged as being of particular interest in terms of what a corpus-based analysis might illuminate. These structures are expanded upon in the following section.

Findings and Discussion/Progressives and Pragmatics

Table 2 below shows the frequencies (all figures given are normalized to words per million) for each of the four structures found in this study across all four corpora. What is immediately evident is the extent to which all four structures feature in the Irish English corpora in comparison with the American and British English varieties. Let us now look at each of these four structures in turn.
Table 2

Frequencies (pmw) for four progressive structures across the four corpora with examples of each from LCIE






Do be V-ing

I don’t know what you do be thinking about.





Don’t be V-ing

Don’t be embarrassing me now





Can’t/couldn’t be V-ing

We can’t be promoting him yet.

I couldn’t be listening to you.





Be going V-ing

They’re going making a dictionary.










Do Be V-ing

As Table 2 above shows us, do be V-ing appeared 12 times pmw in LCIE in both the affirmative and negative forms, but did not feature in ICE-Ireland, SBC or BNC. Interesting to note in the results here is that almost half (42%) of the examples found in LCIE show non-standard inflection: he do, I does etc. Non-standard forms of morphological inflection have been identified in many vernacular varieties, not least Irish English (Bliss 1984; Harris 1984a). Of the five interaction types represented in LCIE (intimate, socialising, professional, pedagogic and transactional), do be V-ing only features in intimate discourse. This may help to explain why others have noted a low occurrence of the structure in their corpora (e.g. Kallen 1989; Filppula 1999), where this type of discourse among close friends and family members did not have feature in the corpus design.

Many scholars commenting on do be V-ing to date have focussed on its particular semantic role, which allows the speaker to emphasise the iterativity or durativity of a given verb (see “Do Be V-ing (e.g. I Don’t Know What You Do Be Thinking About at All Over There—LCIE)” section above). This is reflected both in the concordances from LCIE, as [8] below exemplifies, and in adverbials that collocate with do be V-ing in LCIE: some nights, every day, every time, on a Saturday morning. Kallen (1989: 6) finds a collocation with the structure and the adverbial long, but this is not present in LCIE.


(LCIE: A speaker is talking about her mother.)


<Speaker A>

Well it was pure stupid shure my mother is pure excitable like that. [laughing] You’re as well off to say nothing. You see I don’t tell her nothing and Deirdre does be saying you don’t tell her nothing but she’s better off just driving herself simple.

The use of the present simple here (Deirdre says) would have delivered none of the impact that do be V-ing offers nor conveyed the crucial implication that Deirdre has said this on more than one occasion. In StE such use of the present simple with verbs of cognition including reporting verbs does not necessarily carry the meaning of iterativity which the present simple ordinarily expresses (compare Deirdre makes and Deirdre says). This usage of do be V-ing with reporting verbs and verbs of cognition is therefore hardly surprising in the context of IrE, and indeed occurs on more than one occasion in LCIE. Table 3 shows the list of verbs that collocate with do be V-ing in LCIE. Exactly 50% of the verbs are reporting verbs or verbs of cognition. This is an interesting finding in the data when one considers Bliss’ assertion that do be V-ing can be explained substratally, not by the presence in Irish of habitual but by the division in old Irish between a dependent and independent form of the present tense, the latter of which died out in all but a few verbs of cognition and speech (e.g. deir sé Bliss 1972: 79). Filppula also remarks that the progressive form generally is widely used in his corpus-based IrE data with “verbs of saying and telling” (Filppula 2003: 163). Table 3 shows verbs collocating with do be V-ing in LCIE.
Table 3

Verbs collocating with do be V-ing in LCIE









Giving out








It is also interesting to note that half of these verbs are what we might call strong or intense verbs of speech (rising (meaning teasing/joking), giving out, raving) if we compare them to the more neutral saying and telling. This points to a further and perhaps more significant performative value of do be V-ing, namely that of intensifier. The semantics of this structure to highlight the repeated and ongoing nature of an action lend itself perfectly to this function. In LCIE this is used to fulfil one of two purposes: (1) as a criticism of an action, similar to though not replaceable with the use of present progressive + adverb (e.g. always, constantly, forever etc.) in StE and (2) as a humoristic device. In [9] Speaker A chides Speaker C, not only for not being more engaged in the conversation taking place in the room at that moment, but for their repeated tendency to behave thus.


(LCIE: Speaker C enters a conversation already underway between Speakers A and B and misunderstands the topic of that conversation)


<Speaker C>

Is this someone on the Cabin Fever no? […]


<Speaker B>

We were talking about Caroline.


<Speaker C>

+oh was it.


<Speaker A>

I don’t know what you do be thinking about at all over there.

In [10] Speaker A is reporting to Speaker B on a situation which a third party (Jerry) has found to be particularly funny.


(LCIE: A conversation about Jim and his partner, Sue)


<Speaker A>

Shure 4 Jerry kills himself laughing the night he was west he says that he (Jim) he he do be raving about her and about visa cards and everything and Sue is her name is it?


<Speaker B>



<Speaker A>

Looking for to give the visa card to Sue and she can go way and draw money out of it and everything shure she’d destroy him.

Though there is clearly some sympathy here for Jim and the vulnerable position he finds himself in, the humour lies in the situation being of his own making and he is left with nothing to do but bemoan his circumstances, which he does vociferously, evident in the use of do be V-ing. Often the humour is directed at the speaker themselves or their own behaviour in a self-deprecating manner. In [11] it is the speaker’s behaviour that is provoking a reaction from ‘the lads’.5


(LCIE: A conversation about a local antique shop)


<Speaker A>

Yeah and it’s great for pottery and it’s very reasonable. Some of the stuff would cost a lot in other places. I’m a devil for travelling in junk shops . The lads do be giving out. 6 When I see a junk shop I’m gone. Pure murder. The lads say they’re never going shopping with me again.

Don’t Be V-ing

Don’t be V-ing was found only in the Irish English corpora (see Table 2), though with over twice the number of tokens per million words in LCIE than in ICE-Ireland. This is undoubtedly due to the make-up of each corpus, where LCIE contains a great deal of naturally-occurring language, including intimate and social discourse where many of the examples of Don’t be V-ing were found. As has been mentioned in previous accounts of imperatives in Irish English (see sentence [3] above), a personal pronoun can be added, typically for emphasis, giving the structure don’t [personal pronoun] be V-ing as in [12].


(LCIE: Speaker A wants to give a gift to Speaker C who has called to her home. Speaker B is enlisted to find the gift.)


<Speaker A>

You might see in Helen’s room if there’s= Go out there in the sitting room and look up at the wall this side and see a rose.


<Speaker B>

There is a rose. […]


<Speaker A>

Yeah but had I a second one?


<Speaker C>

Don’t you be looking for that for me now.

Mirroring the findings of Clancy and Vaughan (2012), now was found to occur in utterance-final position with negative progressive imperatives in LCIE. In these examples, the level of hedging at play is increased with the use not only of the progressive form but also of the pragmatic marker. A further syntactic variation on this present in LCIE is the inclusion of the verb mind, and while it is more frequent in the simple form (e.g. Don’t mind him in LCIE), it also occurs with the progressive infinitive as in [13] with mind functioning as a hedging device to soften the imperative.




<Speaker A>

But I blame Peggy for a lot of the support+


<Speaker B>

Don’t mind be blaming at all.

As was discussed in “Don’t Be V-ing (e.g. Don’t Be Embarrassing Me Now—LCIE)” section above, the imperative Don’t be V-ing differs significantly from the habitual form do be V-ing in that it expresses neither an habitual nor an iterative aspect. What it does seem to express in LCIE, however, is progressivity. In almost all of the situations where it arises, the speaker is using it to stop an action that is already in progress. Progressive imperatives with future time reference (i.e. to prevent an action) are extremely rare in LCIE without the implication that the action has already begun. This is evident in [12] where Speaker A is already looking for the rose (with B’s help) and in [13] where Speaker A is already putting the blame on Peggy. The illocutionary force of such imperatives is really Stop doing that, but to express such strong obligation would be a greater threat to the listener’s face (Brown and Levinson 1987). Similarly, a non-progressive imperative would evoke strong obligation and be considered a potentially face-threatening act (FTA). In the following example from ICE-Ireland, Speaker A repeats the FTA of the first non-progressive imperative, but down-toning it in the second instance, using the progressive imperative:



(Two speakers are talking about a mutual acquaintance, Jackie.


<Speaker A>

So I says to him “Stay off them nudist beaches!” (laughter)


<Speaker B>

I don’t blame you.


<Speaker A>

Don’t be going wandering onto them, you know!” But he is so he really is so devastated still at Lilly’s… Twice a day he goes up the cemetery.

This use of the imperative mirrors Timmis’ affective imperative seen in “Don’t Be V-ing (e.g. Don’t Be Embarrassing Me Now—LCIE)” section in that it suggests an awareness on the part of the speaker that this action is likely to happen. In [14] the imperative is doing more than simply warning. It is functioning as a humoristic device to imply that the speaker has (mock) knowledge of Jackie’s penchant for nudist beaches, the humour a salve for Jackie’s grief. Whether it be real or imagined, it is this knowledge that brings the interlocutors closer together, in mutual acknowledgement of a shared repertoire.

Can’t/Couldn’t Be V-ing

Another structure which featured more in the Irish English corpora was can’t/couldn’t be V-ing. Though the numbers were low for both forms, they are worth mentioning here for their similarity to the negative progressive imperative discussed in 4.2. These modal structures appear only in negative form and could be considered a further down-toning of Don’t be V-ing as [15] shows. Note the discourse marker shure in utterance-initial position as an additional pragmatic device.


<Speaker A>

But I don’t ever believe that she went to England for that short week wherever she went.


<Speaker B>



<Speaker C>

Shure John you can’t be blaming.


<Speaker A>

I’m not I’m saying.


<Speaker B>

If I had had time John (laughing) to myself and I knew what flight back she was in I’d be above in Cork airport to witness+


<Speaker A>



<Speaker B>

+Her arrival off the plane but I didn’t know.

Be Going V-ing

The final feature under discussion in this paper is be going V-ing (e.g. I’m not going having any conversation with you—LCIE). This structure was identified in a preliminary concordance search on all –ing verbs by studying the collocates one place to the left of the main verb (see Table 4 for a list of these collocates). The frequency of the structure and its unique syntax marked it as of significant importance to this study of progressives in IrE and so it was isolated for more detailed analysis. Here, we will begin by examining the quantitative data for be going V-ing and then compare it to similar verb forms. This will allow us to finally analyse its semantic and pragmatic functions.
Table 4

Top 20 L1 collocates for *ing verbs in LCIE









































Of the Irish English structures under examination in this paper, be going V-ing is by far the most frequently occurring progressive structure in LCIE, with 85 occurrences pmw, yet it does not feature in the SBC, and only once in the BNC. The structure features only 7 times pmw in ICE-IRL, though this is perhaps not surprising given the differences in register between the two corpora (see “Future Forms” section). Given that progressives generally are a feature more strongly associated with oral communication (e.g. Dennis 1940; Smitterberg 2005), it is to be expected that the form occurs more frequently in LCIE than in ICE-IRL. While the structure does appear in other forms (e.g. gone V-ing N = 1; went V–ing N = 6; go V–ing N = 16), by far the majority of the occurrences occurred with the progressive be going form. Also of note is that 32% of the occurrences of be going V-ing were in the interrogative form, something which may be related to the pragmatics of the structure as we will see below.

Although the syntax of this structure strongly resembles that of going + gerund usually used when the object is an activity, as in “going fishing”, the structure found in LCIE behaves quite differently. Compare the following samples from be going V-ing concordances for LCIE and BNC:

Figures 1 and 2 show that the patterns in these two corpora are operating differently in terms of syntax, semantics, and, as we will see, pragmatics also. In BNC, the post-going verb denotes an activity, often a sporting one, typically a hobby. The intransitive nature of the post-going verb is also immediately recognisable in the BNC concordance, while the opposite is true in the case of LCIE.
Fig. 1

Sample concordance lines for be going V-ing in LCIE

Fig. 2

Sample concordance lines for be going V-ing in BNC

In LCIE, the structure appears to have similar (but not equal) semantic values to the following four verb forms, which may be used in other varieties:
  1. (i)

    present continuous with present time reference, e.g. Here we are going taking a trip to the skip (cf. Here we are taking a trip to the skip)

  2. (ii)

    present continuous with future time reference, e.g. I’m going changing the subject now (cf. I’m changing the subject now)

  3. (iii)

    going to + bare infinitive with future time reference e.g. They’re going making a dictionary eventually (cf. They’re going to make a dictionary eventually)

  4. (iv)

    past continuous (for future time reference in the past) e.g. He was going buying a four-bedroom first. (cf. He was buying a four-bedroom first.)

The most common uses of be going V-ing in LCIE are those that are comparable to (ii) and (iii) above, when used to discuss plans or intentions, as the following example shows:


(LCIE: Speaker A and B are discussing the audio device recording their conversation.)


<Speaker A>

Have you that on all the time have you?


<Speaker B>



<Speaker A>

What are you going doing with it?


<Speaker B>

What do you mean? I’ve it on now like.


<Speaker A>

Why didn’t you have it on all the time?


<Speaker B>

I forgot.

In another variety of English, one might hear What are you going to do with it? (going to + bare infinitive) or What are you doing with it? (present continuous). In the absence of a specified time, the latter option is plainly not viable and may cause a possible miscommunication. The issue would seem, therefore, to be a semantic one. Taking the second alternative sentence, however, the semantic differences are less obvious and it is this writer’s belief that the linguistic options here have a much sounder basis in pragmatics. One of the features of going to for future plans is that it emphasises the subjective view of the person to whom the future action refers (Carter and McCarthy 2006: 630). In other words, it highlights the fact that the subject has made a decision, rather than on what that decision is, placing the burden of responsibility on the subject. Such agentive force on the part of the speaker may be viewed as a face-threatening act (FTA) (Brown and Levinson 1987). However, the use of a hybrid structure, in the form of be going V-ing, offers a less threatening alternative and allows the speaker to minimise or hedge a potential FTA. As a corollary to this, the high instance of be going V-ing in its interrogative form is attributable to this particular pragmatic function. This is not an unusual case; politeness strategies and their linguistics devices abound in Irish English (cf. Kallen 2005), verifiable in the many recent studies on Irish English pragmatics (see “Progressives in Irish English” section), including in the verb phrase (see for example O’Keeffe and Amador-Moreno 2009).

Whatever the reasons for its current usage and frequency in Irish English, it may be of interest to speculate on the origins of this structure.7 Looking at the superstratal influence of Early and Late Modern English, we know that be going to followed by an infinitive was already well-established by the early eighteenth century relative to the progressive form (Strang 1982: 438). It is therefore possible that as the progressive form continued to increase in use in the following century in particular, the two forms merged: be going to became be going V-ing though this would seem to concern the gerund rather than the progressive itself. However, looking at a possible substratal influence, the evidence is clearer. The Irish language allows for a similar structure in expressions of futurity, expressed by one verbal noun followed immediately by another, as evidenced in Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary in [17] (Ó Dónaill 1977: 596).


an leanbh

ag gabháil

a chodladh


be [punctual]

the child

go [verbal noun]

sleep [verbal noun]


‘The child is going to sleep.’

A search in an online corpus of Modern Irish texts gives the earliest example of this in a text from 1775. ( Accessed 01/08/17). This can only tell us that a substratal effect between Irish and Irish English is possible in this case. Further work would be required to establish a more definite link between the two languages for this structure.

In order to shed some further light on be going V-ing, a survey was conducted with 20 participants to ascertain the perceived grammaticality of the structure. Participants were asked whether or not they deemed the structure, as outlined in a sample sentence, to be grammatically correct. Fewer than 10% of respondents perceived it to be so. This is a remarkably low figure when we consider that be going V-ing was the most frequent progressive structure of those studied in this paper. However, intuitions on language are notoriously unreliable, and so what may be of more use are the results of a production completion task in which participants were asked to rephrase the sample sentence. In all cases, be going V-ing was recast using either will or be going to, confirming that the use of this verbal structure may well be a question of pragmatic rather than semantic choice.

Needless to say, there is much yet to be discovered about be going V–ing in the wider Irish English context. The parameters of this current study do not allow for further examination, other than to state that these initial findings have shown it to be a structure that features strongly in Irish English and worthy of much more research.


This study has identified some gaps in existing research on progressive forms in Irish English and demonstrated the contribution that corpus-based studies can make towards filling these gaps. While addressing questions of syntax and semantics, it has also highlighted the role of pragmatics as key to understanding the continued use of non-standard language forms in varieties like Irish English. Using the Limerick Corpus of Irish English as the main source of data has shed further light on two structures already associated with Irish English, namely do be V-ing and Don’t be V-ing, and brought to light two structures hitherto unexplored in the wide canon of Irish English varietal studies, namely can’t/couldn’t be V-ing and be going V-ing.

In particular, it has been possible to highlight the pragmatic usage of do be V-ing as an intensifier for comedic effect or to intensify a criticism. In the case of Don’t be V-ing, we saw how the progressive imperative softens what might otherwise be considered a face-threatening act, while also acting as a marker of shared knowledge between the interlocutors of the other’s propensity for a specific behaviour. Can’t/couldn’t be V-ing was seen to function in a very similar way to Don’t be V-ing, though offering greater protection in terms of face work.

The use of corpus-based methodologies, particularly the use of concordance lists, has unearthed the hitherto unexplored be going V–ing. This structure has thus far gone unnoticed by previous grammarians and dialectologists (with the exception of Henry 1957: 174, 187), yet the empirical evidence from LCIE leaves us in little doubt as to its importance in Irish English due to its frequency and widespread use among a range of speaker profiles from the corpus. A close examination of the function of be going V–ing shows its use almost exclusively to express plans for the future. It can be used as a hedging device, often in the interrogative form to avoid appearing invasive or demanding.

These structures were all found from a wide variety of speakers in terms of age—ranging from sixteen to sixty-nine, which points to the strong likelihood of their survival in Irish English as a variety. This study has also highlighted the importance of a varied corpus design. While LCIE is a corpus of spoken language composed mostly of discourse that is intimate or socio-cultural in its context, this in itself has proven invaluable—the structures found here may not have emerged without such insight into private discourse. Indeed, this was the case when we compared the data from LCIE with ICE-Ireland. Of course, there is always the question of the representativeness of corpora (McEnery and Hardie 2011: 10) and one must be careful not to overstate the presence or absence of linguistic items in this regard. Nonetheless, this article may serve as a starting point for further study into, for example, future verb forms in Irish English particularly in structures like be going V-ing.


  1. 1.

    Both the standard and non-standard forms are used in Irish English, not only in this case but in all progressive structures under examination in this paper.

  2. 2.

    Timmis (2015) “Don’t be falling off your bike: an affective imperative? Paper presented at IVACS Annual Symposium, Shannon College of Hotel Management, 20th February 2015—with whose kind permission I reference this work here.

  3. 3.

    The progressive modal can’t be V-ing was used to great effect in a comedy sketch by comedic duo D’Unbelievables whose work relied heavily on the satirizing of Irish English language and culture. In the sketch, two policemen re-enact a burglary and road accident for a TV programme with the advice to viewers “Ye can’t be doin’ that lads!”.

  4. 4.

    Shure in the LCIE corpus denotes the use of sure as a discourse marker, pronounced /ʃər/.

  5. 5.

    Note that the collective noun ‘lads’ has a gender-neutral usage in Irish English.

  6. 6.

    The phrasal verb ‘to give out’ is a common idiom in IrE. A calque on the Irish phrasal verb ‘tabhairt amach’ it means ‘to complain’ or ‘to scold’.

  7. 7.

    I am indebted to my colleagues at the Department of Modern Irish, University College Cork, particularly Dr. Aidan Doyle, for his help in finding corpus-based examples of this structure in Irish. Needless to say, any shortcomings are entirely my own.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University College CorkCorkIreland
  2. 2.University of LimerickLimerickIreland

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