In this post we’ll look into the basic differences between two English tenses that students often confuse: Present Simple and Present Continuous (also known as Present Progressive).
If you are in a dilemma about which tense to use, ask yourself the following:
I. Are you talking about something PERMANENT or TEMPORARY?
For something permanent or always true, use Present Simple:
I work as a teacher. I teach English.
For things that are temporary and happening now (or around now), use Present Continuous:
I’m on holidays: I’m not working this week, I’m visiting my friends.
II. Is the action happening RIGHT NOW (at the moment of speaking) or are you making a GENERAL statement?
When talking in general, use Present Simple:
I love books – I read at least one every week.
Water boils at 100°C.
If the action is happening at the moment of speaking, use Present Continuous:
Don’t interrupt me now, I’m reading a really exciting book.
The water in the kettle is boiling now.
III. Is the verb you’re using an ACTION or STATE verb?
Remember that only action verbs are typically used in Present Continuous. With state verbs (also known as ‘stative verbs’) use Present Simple.
I think this lesson is very easy. (I think that now, but ‘think’ is a state verb, so don’t use it in Present Continuous.)
I own a small house by the sea. (It’s my possession, I have it now – but ‘to own’ is another state verb; don’t say ‘I’m owning…’)
Here are some examples of frequently used state verbs: believe, belong, contain, depend, exist, know, mean, need, prefer, remember, understand. As you can see, these verbs don’t describe any particular action.
NOTE: BE EXTRA CAREFUL WITH STATE VERBS
Many state verbs can also be used as action verbs, with a slight change in meaning:
I think this is interesting. (That’s my opinion – Present Simple)
I’m thinking very hard about this grammar point. (To ‘think about’ something is an actual activity, not a state; since it’s happening now, we can use it in Present Continuous. In many languages two entirely different verbs would be used in this context.)
Here’s another example, with the verb ‘to come’:
I come from Europe. (That’s where I live; it’s a fact.)
I’m coming from Europe. (I was visiting there, and now I’m coming back home; I don’t live in Europe.)
Even the verb ‘to be’, which is a state verb, can be used in Present Continuous, to indicate that something is temporary and somehow unusual and uncharacteristic:
He is a very good boy (that’s his permanent, usual quality), but today he is being impossible (he is acting unusually strange and out of character).
Similarly, many state verbs can be used in Present Continuous when referring tom something very specific and time-limited:
I love parties. (a general statement in Present Simple)
This party is so cool, I’m loving it! (a reference to a specific party happening at the moment of speaking)
Another tricky verb is ‘to have’ – in its basic meaning, it’s a state verb (meaning ‘to own’, ‘to possess’):
I have a lot of pets. (I own them; that’s a state, not an activity.)
However, in combination with other words, it can change its meaning and become an action verb:
I can’t go out now, I’m having lunch. (I’m eating – this is an activity)
Go talk to him, he’s having a rough time. (He’s going through / experiencing some difficulties.)
I can’t answer the phone, I’m having a shower. (an activity, obviously not a state)
Let’s now practice this a little bit. Click here to do a simple 10-question grammar quiz on Present Simple vs Present Continuous. Let me know if you have any further questions!
Image credit: Unseen Studio on Unsplash
2 Replies to “English grammar: Present Simple vs Present Continuous”
I love the way you teach. Consider me one of your students.
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Much appreciated, Richard!
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