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  5. "Tha i a' ceannach uaireadair…

"Tha i a' ceannach uaireadair."

Translation:She is buying a watch.

April 27, 2020



"She buys a watch" was marked wrong?


She buys a watch has a different meaning – of an iterative or habitual action (she buys a watch every week – she repeats the buying every week), while she is buying a watch means that the buying is on-going right now, happening at the moment.

Gaelic tha i a’ ceannach uaireadair has only the happening-at-the-moment meaning. For the habitual/iterative action you would need the future tense (either with the bi verb and verbal noun, or simple future of ceannaich):

  • bidh i a’ ceannach uaireadair – either she buys a watch or she will be buying a watch,
  • ceannaichidh i uaireadair – either she buys a watch or she will buy a watch.


For the benefit of people familiar with other languages or with learning them, this is an unusual feature of English. We do not use the simple present she buys as in most European languages. This is because of the Celtic influence on English, so it is not surprising that a more word-for-word translation is better when translating from Gaelic than from French, German or Italian. The simple present would be the best translation into French or German, as they need a complicated structure if they need to emphasise the continuing aspect.

Elle achète une montre
Sie kauft eine Uhr

What makes it worse is that very many language courses (such as Duolingo Italian) do expect you to translate these phrases into English using the simple present. This causes a lot of confusion and annoyance for the English-speaking users of the course, that the (presumably Italian) mods just ignore.

Even weirder, this is how I was taught to read in English. I had stories that said

John throws the ball to Jane. Jane catches the ball.

I have never figured out why we were taught to read on what was basically bad English.


But "she buys a watch" is also the present tense narrative form : "So one day Sally decides she needs a timepiece, so she goes downtown, she goes into a store, and she buys a watch, and then...." Maybe this is just an American usage? It's certainly not bad or incorrect, though it's relatively informal.


Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t call narrative stories with stuff like She goes into the shop. She looks around the shop, then chooses a watch, and buys it a ‘bad English’. But then, I don’t think you would translate this narrative simple present into Gaelic continuous present either (and maybe, even if you did, still she is buying a watch is a much better default, without any context, translation of Gaelic tha i a’ ceannach uaireadair).

But then, in other languages which don’t have a clear progressive-vs-habitual-present (like German sie kauft eine Uhr), both translations (she buys a watch, she is buying a watch) should be accepted, as in natural speech both could easily be intended meanings. That’s not the case in Gaelic though – tha i a’ ceannaich… is unambiguously progressive.


Yes. I agree, though I had not quite put it into words. I think the contrast between translating from languages that have the progressive-vs-habitual contrast is important. I wonder how you translate from Welsh, as they had the contrast, but the simple present has been lost from colloquial Welsh and the present continuous (very similar in structure to the Gaelic) now doubles as the present continuous.

As for my reference to 'bad English', what I meant is that it is an odd thing to teach a four-year-old. I had only just managed to understand the difference between the present and the past, and they are using the 'historic present' as they call it in French, which is very common there, unlike in English where it is, in my view, well beyond a 4-year-old. Except it wasn't the historic present. When I got stuck, the teacher tried to prompt me by saying 'Look at the picture. What is John doing. I would say 'John is throwing the ball' and then the text would say something different because it was using the short-form present. So what I meant by 'bad English' is that it is not a substitute for the present continuous, which was the sense of the text, and using age-appropriate language.

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