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控える as far as I can tell behaves more predictably than 控えている in that it generally seems to mean "to refrain" and "to make notes" (as in 電話番号を控える.)

However, 控えている seems to mean many more things including "expecting (a baby)", "to be soon", "waiting (for)", "facing", "contend with" and "abstain from":

Is she expecting (a child)?

be just a year away.

The messenger is waiting in the next room.

There is a mountain behind his country cottage.

The company has many difficulties to contend with.

He abstains from meat for health reasons.

Would I be able to ask how to define 控える and 控えている, how they have come to mean so many things and whether there's a way of determining what 控えている means in a given context?

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In the second example,主語を? What is that? – user458 Dec 3 '11 at 3:44
@sawa I was wondering the same thing, that's the way it was written at Space ALC – cypher Dec 3 '11 at 3:48
Don't trust the internet (including this website) too much. It is up to you what to believe and what to think. – user458 Dec 3 '11 at 3:50
@sawa I did look in a paper dictionary, but I couldn't find anything conclusive. Anyway, thanks for clearing up some of the core meanings. – cypher Dec 3 '11 at 11:12
up vote 1 down vote accepted

Found two dictionaries: goo and alc. (Any good Japanese-English dictionaries that I can reference here? I always use a Japanese-Japanese one. The translation are not very good. However, the examples in alc are excellent, though not 100% correct.)

The meaning of 控える can be "waiting/saying behind(for something)", or "to refrain", or "to make notes", or more. And 控えている is formed by 控え+ている, and "ている" here means something like "in the state of".

As for the examples:

be just a year away(主語を)

It means the phrase can be used as "卒業を*ちょうど一年後に控えている", "*Graduation is just a year away".

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With or without ている, the core meaning does not change. It means 'waiting/staying behind (for something)'

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