The Multi-Purpose Present Continuous Tense in English
After covering the present simple tense in one of my last articles, it’s only right that we proceed with its little brother – the present continuous tense.
However, this article isn’t going to be your typical ABCs of the tense laid out in hierarchical order. On the contrary, I’m going to use my tried-and-tested method that students love when it comes to mastering the present continuous tense.
Why? Because I want this one article to teach you more about the present continuous tense than any other source out there.
In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret: the present continuous tense is the only tense in English that can be used to talk about actions in the past, present, and future.
You might ask “how’s that even possible” if the name of the tense itself indicates that it’s used in the present. Well, stick till the end and you’ll learn more than you expect, I guarantee it.
When Do We Use the Present Continuous Tense?
As mentioned earlier, the present continuous tense has multiple use cases which aren’t necessarily limited to the present. Personally, I always divide these use cases into five categories. Let’s dive in!
1. Actions that are currently underway
This is a classic example of a present continuous tense use case which most English learners get to master when learning about it for the first time.
I’m reading this article.
I’m surfing the Internet.
To emphasize that the action is truly happening at the exact moment of speaking about it, we can add time adverbials such as: “at the moment”, “now”, “currently”, etc.
I’m currently reading this article.
I’m surfing the Internet at the moment.
2. Trends or actions going on for a longer time period
If an action is happening over an extended period of time, it can be considered a trend. When we’re talking about education or employment, it’s an ongoing action but one that lasts for a much longer time period.
I’m still working for the same company.
More and more people are buying bitcoins.
3. Repeated actions or ones that are annoying the speaker
The previous use case covers actions that “last” over a period of time. This one is about actions that “repeat” over time and happen on a regular basis.
Jasmin’s always laughing.
It’s always raining in Liverpool.
The downside of actions that happen over and over again is that they often irritate or annoy some people, which is another use case of the present continuous tense.
Tom and Tonya are always arguing!
The teacher’s constantly complaining about her salary!
Note: We can also put these two sentences in the present simple tense but they won’t have that “annoying” effect which we’re talking about here.
4. Future events and plans
As previously stated, the present continuous tense can also be used to talk about future actions, plans or scheduled events. You can also use time adverbials for clarity.
I’m going to the movies on Friday.
We’re seeing “Black Panther” tonight.
The train’s leaving at 5 am.
Note: These actions can be equally represented through the usage of the future simple, even though there are some slight differences which often overlap. Nonetheless, they’re both correct, so my advice is to stick with whatever you feel like saying at the moment.
5. Actions in the past (storytelling)
The lesser-known use case of the present continuous tense is for talking about past events. It’s because these past events are only represented through context and not time adverbials or past verb forms.
We often find this when we’re telling a story or summarising something from a book, film or play.
Guys, you won’t believe what just happened to me! So, I’m walking into this room and I see a ghost. It’s telling me to go left but I’m definitely not listening! So, I open the door to the right and enter. Now I’m walking across this dark room and…
Trust me, you don’t want to hear the ending of this story!
So, Why Is It Called the “Present” Continuous Tense?
This is a question my students ask me right after they hear about all of these present continuous tense use cases for the first time. Rightfully so.
I mean, seriously… why does it have the word “present” in its name if it can be used for past, present, and future actions?
The answer: it’s only because of its form.
If we look at how the present continuous tense is formed, we’ll find that it only uses the “present” forms of the auxiliary verb “to be”, which are: “am”, “are”, and “is”, before the main verb in its gerund form.
I am reading a cool story in the newspapers.
You are doing a great job here!
She is having a conversation with some boy.
I am not reading a cool story in the newspapers.
You are not doing a great job here!
She is having a conversation with some boy.
Am I reading a cool story in the newspapers?
Are you doing a great job here?
Is she having a conversation with some boy?
There’s one important thing to note here…
If the form of the auxiliary verb “to be” in the sentences above is changed in any way, we can no longer say that these sentences are written in the present continuous tense.
I am reading a cool story in the newspapers. (present continuous tense)
I was reading a cool story in the newspapers. (past continuous tense)
I have been reading a cool story in the newspapers. (present perfect continuous tense)
I had been reading a cool story in the newspapers. (past perfect continuous tense)
I will be reading a cool story in the newspapers. (future continuous tense)
I will have been reading a cool story in the newspapers. (future perfect continuous tense)
And so on and so forth… You get the picture.
In a nutshell, the multi-purpose verb “to be” is the main reason why any continuous tense in English is named the way it is, including our favourite “present” continuous tense.
Can All English Verbs Be Used in the Present Continuous Tense?
The short answer to this question is a definitive “no”. The long one: no, but there are some cases when we can, although the meaning of what we’re saying totally changes.
In general, verbs that describe “states” as opposed to actions or processes are typically used in the present simple, such as: “know”, “prefer”, “remember”, etc. This rule also applies to verbs that indicate perception, opinion, emotion, desire, measurement, etc.
Let’s have a look at a few examples of this for a better understanding of just what I mean:
I know what you mean. (correct)
I’m knowing what you mean. (incorrect)
I fear heights. (correct)
I’m fearing heights. (incorrect)
Jasmin, sit down or I’ll give you an F! I mean it!. (correct)
Jasmin, sit down or I’ll give you an F! I’m meaning it!. (incorrect)
Note: Some verbs that belong to the categories above can be used in both the present simple and continuous tense, but then the meaning of what we’re saying is different.
She has three daughters. (the woman is a mother of three girls)
She’s having a daughter. (the woman is pregnant with a baby girl)
This jacket feels so warm! (one’s perception of the jacket’s qualities)
This jacket’s feeling so warm! (the jacket has senses and feelings)
Yes, I see him. (perception, sight)
Yes, I’m seeing him. (she’s dating or meeting him regularly)
Hope this clears it up! If you want to check the full list of verbs that aren’t usually used in the present continuous tense, check this list.
What Is the Most Important Thing to Remember Here?
When it comes to the present continuous tense, it’s important to know that the plethora of use cases we covered here today are actually not that extreme or noticeable during everyday conversations.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that most English language learners use the tense “naturally” and without hesitation most of the time, which is what language fluency is all about.
It’s safe to say that worrying about the usage of the present continuous tense should not be on your to-do list as an English language learner, nor should it ever be, but knowing about all of them definitely helps!
Jasmin Alić is an award-winning EFL/ESL teacher and writing aficionado from Bosnia and Herzegovina with years of experience in multicultural learning environments.