Most English students know that the present continuous is used to talk about actions that are in progress at the moment of speaking, such as "He's driving," "We're chatting," "They're reading quietly," or a question like "Are you doing anything right now?" However, this does not tell the whole story. In this blog post, we will look at 6 ways to use this versatile English tense.
Talking about ongoing, unfinished, or temporary actions
First, we need to expand what we mean by "actions that are in progress at the moment of speaking." Another way to think about this definition is to say the present continuous is used to talk about ongoing, unfinished or temporary actions. This does not only mean concrete actions that you can see directly in front of you or that are physically happening right now.
Let's look at some examples that look at the various possibilities here:
"What's Jim doing?" "He's watching TV." (I can see Jim in front of me. He's watching TV. Maybe we're in the living room and I'm talking to one of my friends on the phone who wants to know what Jim is doing)
"I'm having lunch." (I'm on the phone with someone who wants to know what I'm doing. They can't see me, but I answered the phone while I was having lunch)
"The kids are playing outside." (We know they are doing this even if we can't see them playing right now)
"I'm writing a book." (I'm not doing this in front of you, but I am doing it in my life right now)
"She's taking swimming lessons." (Again, not directly in front of you, but this is something she is doing in her life. It's ongoing, unfinished, and probably temporary. She will finish her swimming lessons at some point. Maybe she's only taking them for 8 weeks)
"He lost his job, so he's just being a dad right now." (He's doing more than usual to take care of his children because he's at home more often these days. This is probably a temporary situation. He's probably also looking for a new job. Of course, he will always be his children's dad, but for now, he's getting a chance to do more activities with his kids than he did before)
A couple of other examples that are less concrete:
"They're thinking of starting a business together." (I've talked to them and they told me they're thinking of doing this)
"He's not taking this seriously." (He's making jokes. Clearly, he's not taking the situation seriously)
As you can see, "actions that are in progress at the moment of speaking" isn't always as simple as it sounds.
Talking about new behaviours or habits
Another way you can use the present continuous is to talk about new behavioural patterns or habits, such as in the following cases:
"She's not answering her emails lately."
"He's calling his mom a lot these days."
"They're spending a lot of time together."
"We're getting along very well recently."
(note: time words and phrases such as "these days," "lately," and "recently" are common with this usage. The present perfect continuous can be used in these cases as well. "She hasn't been answering her emails lately," "He's been calling his mom a lot these days," and "They've been spending a lot of time together." The present continuous focuses on the action happening regularly, while the present perfect continuous focuses on the action starting in the past and continuing into the present)
Talking about repeated behaviours
If someone does something regularly, you can use the present continuous to talk about it. While this is usually used to talk about annoying or negative behaviours, it can be used for positive behaviours too. This usage uses adverbs of frequency, usually "always," and "constantly," before the continuous verb.
"He's always complaining." (He complains all the time)
"They're constantly fighting."
"She's such a nice person. She's always listening to people's problems."
"I'm constantly reading grammar articles to try to improve my language skills."
(note: you can also use the present simple to talk about repeated behaviours or habits, such as "He always complains." The present continuous puts a stronger emphasis on the non-stop nature of the behaviour)
Comparing the present to the past
You can also use the present continuous to contrast how people are doing things now compared to how they used to do them in the past. Note the examples:
"People aren't watching as much live TV these days. Everyone is streaming things instead."
"I think more people are texting than ever before."
"Companies aren't giving as much vacation time as they used to."
"I'm reading more books now than I ever did in the past."
(note: the present simple can be used to state present facts as well. "Companies don't give as much vacation time as they used to," "People don't watch as much live TV these days," etc.)
Giving certain stative verbs dynamic usage
Typically, you can't use stative verbs like "know" and "have" in continuous tenses. However, there are some verbs that can be used in this way. Note the following:
"He's smelling the sauce. It smells good."
"Are you having fun?"
"Stop being a jerk." (this is a temporary behaviour; the person isn't acting nicely)
"I'm minding my own business."
Some stative verbs that can be used with continuous tenses are appear, feel, smell, have, and be. For more information on stative verbs and their dynamic usage, check out this resource written by my colleague Rebecca.
Talking about concrete future plans
When you are almost 100% certain that something will happen in the future because you have discussed it and already arranged it, you can use the present continuous. Note the examples:
"What are you doing after school?" ("What are you doing..." plus a future time word or phrase is a common question to ask about a person's future plans)
"I'm visiting my sister this weekend."
"We're seeing a movie after work. Want to come?"
"Sony's releasing the new PlayStation next fall."
(note: this usage of the present continuous is very similar to "be going to" for future plans, such as "We're going to see a movie after work" and "I'm going to visit my sister this weekend." The slight difference is that "be going to" puts more emphasis on the intention. However, the end result is the same: You are almost certain that this plan will happen)
That's it! I hope this gives you an idea of just how versatile the present continuous can be. If you're not sure about something, or if you'd like to leave me some feedback on this article, please leave a comment. And for more information on the present continuous, you can check out a video I made several years ago. It's similar-but-different to the information I've given you here, as I'm always refining my own knowledge and sharing what I learn with all of you. I hope you enjoy it!
Until next time, I wish you success in your studies.