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Present Continuous Tense - When to use it?

Following my previous lesson about the present simple, today I’m going to talk about the present continuous tense and explain when to use it. The concept of continuous is sometimes quite difficult for students learning English to understand. This is because often it does not exist in their language. A lot of languages will use the equivalent of the present simple and express the idea of a continuous actions with other words.

So when / why do we use the present continuous?

The present continuous tense is used for actions happening now or for an action that is unfinished. This tense is also used when the action is temporary.

So to explain that in a short way, we use the present continuous for:

  • Actions happening now
  • Unfinished actions
  • Temporary actions

Note: we also use the present continuous to talk about the future but I will explain that in a future blog article.

How to Form the Present Continuous Tense

Structure: Subject + be (am / is / are) + verb(ing)

The present continuous tense is formed with the subject plus verb to be in the present plus the present particle form (-ing) of the main verb

One simple example of this tense is: He is talking. "He" is the subject, "is" is the present tense of the verb to be and "talking" is the present participle verb form. Some other forms of this verb tense are:

  • I am playing to my friend.
  • The students are writing an essay.

In the examples above, the present continuous tells us that the action is happening now, at the moment of speaking.

‍Here is a table showing you how to make positive sentences with the present continuous.

Examples of the Present Continuous Tense

Example for something happening now

Present continuous tense can be used to express something happening right now or to express something that is not happening right now. Examples of this use include:

  • He is not cleaning the house. (it is not happening now)
  • John is working on his computer. (it is happening now)
  • We are not sleeping. (it is not happening now)
  • Peter is reading a book.(it is happening now)

Examples for unfinished actions

Present continuous tense can be used for actions which are not finished. This is very similar to actions happening now.

  • Petra is making dinner now. (actions not finished)
  • They are having breakfast right now. (actions not finished)
  • Pauline is talking on the phone at the moment. (actions not finished)

Examples for temporary actions

The Present continuous tense can be used to talk about things happening now but which are temporary, meaning the action will last a long time.

  • Peter is laughing. (it happening now but will stop very soon)
  • I am living in a hotel. (at the moment I am living but it will finish soon)
  • My boss is travelling to new York. (also here the action of travelling will finish soon)

How to make questions using the present continuous?

Present continuous tense can also be used in questions. Making questions with the present continuous is a little easier than with other tenses. All you need to do is change the subject and to be. Here are some more examples:

Are you working at the moment?

Is your sister living in France?

Am I losing weight?

Here is a table explaining the structure of questions using the present continuous.

As you can see from the table above, you can make an open question (open questions start with “what, why, when, how, why, …) very easily. You do not need to change the order of anything, just add the correct WH- word before the the auxiliary be.

Note: Closed questions are questions which do not use WH- questions words and the only answer can only be yes or no. An open question needs a full answer we cannot answer an open question with yes or no. I will write another blog article explaining this in more detail very soon.

More Uses of Present Continuous Tense

We can also use the present continuous to describe actions that are being repeated. Words like always and constantly are used with the verb. Be careful, when we use the always and constantly with the present continous, it tell us that something is happening often and that it is negative or that something annoys you.

Examples of this use include:

  • I am always arguing with my sister. (by using always here it tell us that I argue often with my sister and that it is annoying to me)
  • She is constantly telling me how tiring her job is. (same above, constantly tells us that this action action happens regularly and that it is something which annoys me. We get the idea that she is complaining all the time)

When Not to Use Present Continuous Tense

There are certain verbs that cannot be used in the present continuous tense. These are called state verbs (I’ll make a lit of all the state verbs soon for you so you can learn them). The following verbs are non-continuous or also know as state-verbs.

  • Communication: agree, promise, surprise
  • Feelings: like, love, hate
  • Senses: hear, see, smell, taste
  • Thinking: believe, know, understand

As you can see, the present continuous is often used in English grammar to talk about a continuing action, something that is not finished. It is important to learn how to use it correctly as it tells us when the action is happening, compared to the present simple which tells us about something which is a fact or true. So study the difference between the present simple and the present continuous.

Do you have any questions about the present continuous? Ask me in the comment section below (bottom of this page)

Happy learning!

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