Learn English – “I’m always going by bike” vs. “I always go by bike”


I hate translation work. On the other hand, proofreading somebody's English written work is fine as long as I can speak to that person face-to-face. Nuances, ambiguities, false friends etc. get ironed out, and a satisfactory text will be produced. So, whenever a blatant proofreading question appears on ELU, I happily click off-topic, and forget about it. But not always…

An excerpt of the original translation by a German speaker

  1. I can go by suburban train, that’s only five minutes. Then, I still have to walk ten minutes. But I am always going by bike, then I am in quarter an hour at my desk.

My edited version (which was a bit rushed).

  1. I can go by suburban train, that’s only five minutes. Then, I still
    have to walk another ten minutes. But I always go by bike, then I am
    at my desk in fifteen minutes.

I know the phrase I'm always going by bike is grammatical, it expresses a habitual action; however, many grammar books suggest that the present progressive tense is used in conjunction with always to emphasize the speaker's annoyance and irritation. The classic phrase churned out being:

He's always forgetting his keys.

Michael Swan in PEU (point 503) writes

However, there is another way to use always: when we want to say that something happens often and (probably) unexpectedly. In this case, we use progressive tenses.

  • She's always giving people little presents
  • My grandfather was always forgetting things.

This structure is often used to talk about irritating, annoying things that happen frequently. Instead of always, other words with similar meanings (e.g. forever, constantly and continually) can be used.

When I hear myself say “I'm always going by bike” aloud, it's in a chirpy upbeat voice because the speaker doesn't strike me as being annoyed or wearied. If the speaker came across as being irritated, I might have left that phrase alone.

Question No.1

  • Which version would be more appropriate? And Why?
  1. “I'm always going by bike”
  2. “I always go by bike”

Then I would like to hear what others think of changing the expression ‘quarter an hour’ to ‘fifteen minutes’. Although the expression should be written ‘quarter of an hour’, the preposition of is usually elided in speech (at least that's my impression). Yet the original translation, “in quarter an hour”, to me looks awkward.

By comparison, the Italian un quarto d'ora (a quarter of an hour) and quindici minuti (fifteen minutes) are interchangeable in speech. In my opinion, native speakers prefer to say fifteen minutes as it's shorter and more idiomatic-sounding.

Question No.2

  • Is my preferring “fifteen minutes” a question of style and convenience, or do native speakers actually say “a quarter of an hour”?

Finally, here is the version which I came up with. Is it OK?

  1. I can take the suburban train, that’s only five minutes, but I'd still have to walk another ten, so I always go by bike. That way I'm at my desk in fifteen minutes.

Best Answer

"I'm always going by bike" sounds odd, though it's hard to say quite why. The progressive seems better suited to habits of a continuous nature rather than recurrent events. Thus "I'm always riding my bike" seems fine, though isn't applicable in this case. In this case I would use "I always go by bike" as appropriate to the repeated but discontinuous nature of the statement. Your final version sounds good to me (though I'd personally drop the "still" as implied by "another"). Though I'd be happy with "quarter of an hour" (en-gb, see my comment), "fifteen minutes" has a nice symmetry with the rest. In speech the "minutes" could of course be dropped as implied.