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Are they very naughty or just being very naughty?

A question from Gary in Germany:

Hello I've got a question about the verb 'be'.
If I want to describe an action, I can say for instance:
"The children are being very naughty"
But can't I say "The children are very naughty" as well, can I?

So my question is when must I use 'being' and when can I leave it out?



Ask about English

Rachel Wicaksono answers:

Thanks for this question Gary! I could give lots of examples of my own children's naughtiness in my answer, but perhaps I shouldn't embarrass them on the BBC Learning English!

Of course, you are absolutely right to say that both
'The children are very naughty' - AND
'The children are being very naughty' are possible.
The question for you to decide is: were the children just naughty once, or are they always naughty?

The reason I ask is because you can choose either:
'The children are being very naughty' - OR
'The children are naughty' depending on what you want to say about how long the naughtiness lasted, that is, the duration of their naughtiness.

Your answer to my question about how long the children were naughty is called your perspective on the duration of the event.

I'll say a little more about the idea of perspective now...
In English, as you know, verbs can be used to give information about three things:
The first thing is time - meaning, when the event happened
The second thing is aspect - meaning, our perspective on the time
And the third thing is voice - meaning, who did or had the verb done to them.

Now, your question is about aspect. Your choice of aspect shows whether you think the event is temporary or permanent, whether it happens regularly, whether it was in progress when something else started, and so on. The aspect your question asks about is the progressive aspect, sometimes also referred to as the continuous aspect...
'The children are being very naughty.'

In this example, the present progressive indicates that the children's naughtiness is not a permanent state, but, instead, is seen as a temporary event. The children have not always been naughty - perhaps they are just going through a naughty stage!

So, you have shown your perspective on the duration of the event, which is the naughtiness, by choosing the progressive aspect, 'are being naughty'.

In contrast:
'The children are very naughty' ...
Uses the simple aspect of the present tense of the verb 'to be'. In this example, the children's naughtiness is not seen as a temporary event, but as a permanent state. They are not going though a naughty stage - they are always naughty!

Again, you have shown your perspective on the duration of the event, the naughtiness, by choosing the simple aspect, 'are naughty'.

Anyway, a brief summary would be:
The progressive aspect, which is:
'am', 'is', 'are' + the ?ing form of the verb -
is often used to describe temporary events or actions.
For example: 'I'm visiting London today.'

The simple aspect, which is the base form of the verb -
is often used, on the other hand, to describe permanent actions or events.
For example: 'I live in York.'

You'll be pleased to hear that my own children's naughtiness, so far, has definitely been temporary; they're just being naughty at the moment. So I'll be talking about their behaviour in the progressive aspect - at least for now!

Rachel has taught English and trained teachers in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Japan and the UK. She is an IELTS examiner and a trainer and assessor for the Cambridge ESOL Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults. Currently, Rachel works at York St John University where she is Head of Programme for the MA English Language Teaching and the International Foundation Certificate.


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