Present continuous

Quick reference

Form

am/is/are + present participle (verb + ing)

Meaning

  1. Present continuous is used to talk about something that is happening at the time of speaking. The action is not finished.
    • He is speaking to John.
    • What is she doing?
  2. Present continuous is used to talk about temporary situations.
    • I ‘m living in London at the moment.
    • Why is she moving house?
  3. Present continuous is used to talk about changing situations.
    • You’re getting taller and taller every day.
    • The weather‘s getting warmer.
  4. Present continuous is used to talk about repeated actions around the time of speaking.
    • I’m seeing Jane a lot these days.
  5. Present continuous is used to talk about future arrangements.
    • I’m meeting my father at the airport at 5 o’clock tomorrow.
    • We’re having lunch together at the weekend.
  6. Present continuous is used with words such as ALWAYS to talk about things that happen repeatedly (sometimes to say that something is irritating or annoying).
    • She‘s always complaining about how difficult her life is.
  7. When we are talking about how someone looks or feels, present continuous or present simple can be used.
    • How are you feeling? / How do you feel?
    • Jenny is looking really good today? / Jenny looks really good today.

Additional points

  1. Some verbs are not normally used with present continuous because these verbs are not normally action verbs, for example: believe, belong, depend, hate, know, like, love, mean, need, prefer, realise, suppose, want, understand.

    • They know each other very well – correct
    • They are knowing each other very well – incorrect

Present continuous in detail

Present continuous form

How do we form the present continuous?

We form the present continuous with the auxiliary verb “be” and the present participle form of the main verb. For the auxiliary verb “be” we use its present forms am, are and is:

am/are/is + present participle

The present participle form of all verbs ends in “ing”, and to make it we normally simply need to add “ing” to the base form of the verb. There are some exceptions though:

Verb Rule Example
Most verbs ending with consonant + “e” take off the “e” hoping; taking
Most verbs ending in consonant + vowel + consonant double the last consonant batting; referring; swimming
Verbs ending in consonant + vowel + consonant where the last consonant is “w”, “x” or “y” don’t double the last consonant blowing; flexing
Verbs ending in “ie” change the “ie” to “y” dying; lying
Verbs ending in “c” add “k” panicking

Present continuous affirmative

Here are some examples of present continuous sentences using am/are/is and the present participle:

  • I am typing on my computer.
  • They are laughing at the dog.
  • You are swimming in the pool.

We can use a contraction of the auxiliary verb in order to sound more natural in spoken English:

  • I’m typing on my computer.
  • They’re laughing at the dog.
  • You’re swimming in the pool.

Present continuous questions

To make present continuous questions we can use subject-auxiliary inversion. This means that we swap around the position of the auxiliary verb and the subject. Here’s how it works with yes/no questions:

  • Am I typing on my computer?
  • Are they laughing at the dog?
  • Are you swimming in the pool?

And here are some examples of object and adverb questions, adding a question word to the beginning of the questions:

  • What am I typing on my computer?
  • Why are they laughing at the dog?
  • Why are you swimming in the pool?

For present continuous subject questions, the question word just replaces the subject, like this:

  • Who is typing on my computer?
  • Who is laughing at the dog?
  • Who is swimming in the pool?

With subject questions, we always use “is” for the auxiliary verb. That’s because when we’re asking a question about the subject we don’t yet know if the subject is in the first person, second person or third person. If we knew this, we wouldn’t need to ask the question in the first place.

Present continuous negatives

To make a negative present continuous sentence, we use an auxiliary verb (which we already have) and “not”. Here are some examples:

  • I am not typing on my computer.
  • They are not laughing at the dog.
  • You are not swimming in the pool.

Again, we can contract these negative present continuous sentences, like this:

  • I ‘m not typing on my computer.
  • They ‘re not laughing at the dog.
  • You ‘re not swimming in the pool.

Present continuous meaning

When do we use the present continuous?

Now that we’ve seen how to make a present continuous sentence, let’s have a look at why we use it – its meaning. We can get a clue from the other name for present continuous: present progressive. The word “progressive” suggests something which is in progress or changing.

Here are the different uses of the present continuous:

Actions in progress at or around the time of speaking

Have a look at these sentences:

  • John and Anna are playing tennis.
  • Superman is flying very quickly through the sky.

The speaker chooses to use present continuous in both these sentences to tell us that these actions are in progress at the time of speaking. For this to be true these actions must have started at some point before the time of speaking (although we don’t know exactly when – maybe 10 seconds before, maybe one hour) and will finish at some point after the time of speaking (again we don’t know exactly when.)

If we compare these sentences to the present simple we can see the difference in meaning:

  • John and Anna play tennis.
  • Superman flies very quickly through the sky.

Now we simply have two facts. We don’t have any information about whether John, Anna and Superman are playing tennis and flying at the moment (they may or may not be) – we simply know that this is what they do.

Temporary situations

We also use present progressive to talk about situations which we think of as temporary. Here are some examples:

  • Jane’s driving her husband’s car at the moment because hers is being repaired.
  • I’m staying with a friend in London.

We understand when we hear these sentences that as soon as Jane’s car is repaired she will stop driving her husband’s, and that some time soon I will find a place of my own to live. So we think of these situations as temporary and expect them to end soon. We often use time expressions like “for the time being” and “this week” in this kind of sentence.

Let’s compare one of these sentences to the present simple:

  • I’m staying with a friend in London. (present progressive)
  • I stay with a friend in London. (present simple)

If the speaker chooses to say “I stay with a friend in London” he wants to give the impression that it’s fairly permanent – he doesn’t have any intention of finding a place of his own in the foreseeable future. (In fact this sentence sounds quite strange, because to stay with a friend permanently is unusual.) If instead he chooses to say “I’m staying with a friend in London” he gives the impression that it’s only temporary – he’s staying with his friend now but expects to find his own place soon.

Now, if you look again at the “playing tennis” and “Superman” examples you might well be thinking that they too are temporary situations. Unless John and Anna intend to continue their game of tennis for all eternity we can understand that the action will end sometime soon. So what’s the difference? Well, let’s write two different versions of the “tennis” example and find out:

  • John and Anna are playing tennis.
  • John and Anna are playing tennis this week because the swimming pool is closed.

In the first sentence the action is in progress as we speak. In the second sentence though the emphasis is on the fact that John and Anna’s situation (having to play tennis) is a temporary one, which we expect to end just as soon as the gym reopens. They may or may not be actually playing tennis at this particular moment.

And this tells us something important about meaning. Very often just the verb form itself (choosing present progressive rather than present simple, for example) gives us enough information about the meaning of what is said. But sometimes – like in this case – we may also need information from the context (what we know about the situation) or from the words surrounding the example (called the cotext) in order to understand the more precise meaning.

Changing situations

We said earlier that the word “progressive” can suggest something which is changing, which brings us to the next reason to use present progressive.

  • Alex is getting taller every day!
  • House prices are going up.

These are changing situations. Once again there is not necessarily a clear distinction between this and the other meanings we’ve already seen. The actions of “getting taller” and “going up” are both in progress at the time of speaking and are probably temporary too. Alex will, we imagine, stop growing at some point and house prices will probably fall at some point too. But with these sentences we have the added meaning that something (Alex’s height, house prices) is changing. We didn’t get this meaning with our other examples – there was no change involved when we said “Superman is flying” and “She’s driving her husband’s car”.

Repeated actions around the time of speaking

We use present progressive to show that an action or occurrence happens repeatedly around the time of speaking. Sometimes this repeated action causes us to be surprised or curious because of a change in the other person’s normal behaviour, and sometimes it makes us irritated. Have a look at these examples:

  • You’re seeing Jane a lot these days.
  • Bob’s always complaining about how difficult his life is.

In the first example the speaker is surprised, or perhaps curious to know more, because “seeing Jane a lot” represents a change in the other person’s normal behaviour. In the second example the speaker is annoyed at Bob’s constant complaining. We normally use “always” before the main verb to show this irritation.

Now, saying these two sentences in the present simple also works, but again if we do this we are left with just plain facts – we lose the information about how the speaker feels about the situation:

  • You see a lot of Jane these days.
  • Bob always complains about how difficult his life is.

Present continuous additional points

Present continuous and stative verbs

Dynamic verbs describe an action or occurrence, and stative verbs describe a state of being. Here are some examples of dynamic and stative verbs in present continuous:

  • The dog is walking down the road. (dynamic verb)
  • I am building a beautiful house on this land. (dynamic verb)
  • Anna is knowing Jim well. (stative verb)
  • I am liking cake. (stative verb)

The two sentences with the dynamic verbs sound okay – it looks like using these verbs in the progressive form works. But the sentences with the stative verbs don’t sound quite right. And that’s because there is no action involved with these verbs. Anna either knows Jim or she doesn’t, and I either like cake or I don’t. It isn’t possible (or would at least be very strange) for Anna to know Jim or for me to like cake only at the time of speaking. As a result, we don’t normally use stative verbs in the present continuous form.

Some verbs though can be both dynamic and stative, depending on how we use them. This means that we can use the verb with its dynamic meaning in the present progressive form:

  • I think France is a great place to live. (think – stative – present simple)
  • Wait! Can’t you see he’s thinking about his answer? (think – dynamic – present continuous)

It’s also becoming more and more common to use verbs which were traditionally only stative verbs in continuous form. Here’s an example:

  • I love your new car. (love – stative – present simple)
  • I’m loving your new car! (love – stative but used in a dynamic way – present progressive)

Are present continuous and present progressive the same?

Present progressive is another name for present continuous and so they are exactly the same. Using “present progressive” gives us a better idea of its meaning – the word “progressive” suggests that something is in progress or changing.

Present continuous signal words

Signal words are words or phrases which often go hand in hand with a particular tense. They can give us clues about which tense to expect or to use. Some common signal words with present continuous are time words like “now”, “at the moment”, “this week” and “for the time being” and the words “Look!” and “Listen!”

  • Look! The match is starting.
  • Listen! The baby is crying.
  • Sorry, I can’t come. I’m working at the moment.
  • I’m staying in Manchester this week.

We have to be a bit careful with signal words though – they can just as easily signal another tense:

  • Look! He knocked over the glass. (past simple)
  • Listen! The baby has stopped crying. (present perfect)
  • I’ve done a lot of work this week. (present perfect)

Related grammar points

Past Continuous
Present Simple
Tense and aspect

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