English Grammar: The Present Continuous Tense, Part I

So, tell me, what are you doing right now? Yes, right now, at this very moment?

Since I can’t hear you, I will answer for you according to my best guess:

You are reading. You are sitting. You are breathing. You are wishing you had decided to do something else, other than to study grammar.

Do you notice, that with all of those verbs I just mentioned: reading, sitting, breathing, wishing; did you notice, that all of them have the identifying -ing suffix. (A suffix is a word’s ending, added, in order to show some change of meaning).

For example: wish, wishing; read, reading; sit, sitting. In each case the -ing suffix is added, in order to show:

The Present Continuous Tense.

So why did I ask you what you are do-ING right now? Because, this is the single most important usage of the Present Continuous: the description of what is happening NOW.

The Simple Present Tense, on the other hand, describes repeated actions: He gets up every day at six o’clock. He reads the newspaper every morning. Or, a persistent circumstance. Henry loves his wife. Birds fly south for the winter.

So we can safely say, that the -s ending or no ending, is the hint that the Simple Present is being used.

And the Present Continuous’ identifying mark is -ing.

Again, the Present Continuous deals, primarily, with now. It might not be a bad idea to call it the Present NOW Tense. Except, that it’s called the Present Continuous for a very good reason: to emphasize that the action of the verb continues, thus distinguishing the Present Continuous from another important tense which describes action just completed. But I don’t want to tell you the name of that tense just yet: I want you to learn these principles one step at a time.

Here are some examples:

The old man is watching TV. He’s doing that right now.
The musician is playing the guitar so beautifully!
The old man is walking slowly down the road.

All of these examples describe what is happening at this moment. The speaker of the sentence is the one who has the perspective.

The Present Continuous differs from the Simple Present tense also in this way: while the Simple Present does all of the work on its own, the Present Continuous uses a helping verb: the verb “to be”.

Thus you can’t say, “The old man walking.” You have to say, “The old man is walking.

The Simple Present, on the other hand, does all of the work on its own, employing no helping verb:

The old man walks down that road at the same time every day. (Repeated action determines that the Simple Present is used.)

No helping verb is used in this case. (A helping verb is also called an auxiliary verb).

So, what have we learned?

1) The Present Continuous deals primarily with the NOW.
2) The Present Continuous uses the verb “to be” as a helping verb.
3) The Simple Present deals with repeated actions or persistent circumstances.
4) The Simple Present does NOT use a helping verb.

There are other uses to the Present Continuous, but the NOW usage is the most important to remember. We will examine the other uses in a future article.

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