The Present Continuous - The Rules

Grammar
The Present Continuous - The Real Rules On How To Use It
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The Present Continuous - The Rules

This blog article will explain the present continuous tense and how you should use it to sound natural and grammatically accurate in English. The concept of continuous in English can be quite difficult for students to understand. This is because often it does not exist in their native language or because they have another way to express continuous actions.  For example, in French a continuous action is expressed as ‘je suis en train de faire quelque chose’, literally translated as ‘I’m in the middle of doing something’. Other languages will use the equivalent of the present simple and express the idea of a continuous action with other words or the context will make it clear what type of action is taking place.

The following will explain:

  • How to form the present continuous
  • Give examples of the present continuous
  • Explain some of the ways we use the present continuous
  • Explain when not to use the present continuous

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 talking 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 statements or positive sentences with the present continuous.

Table explaining the structure of the present continuous in affirmative sentences
Table explaining the structure of the present continuous in affirmative sentences


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   the verb to be. Here are some more examples:

Are you working at the moment?

Is your sister living in France?

Am I losing weight?

Table explaining the structure of the present continuous in questions
Table explaining the structure of the present continuous in questions

How to make the negative using the present continuous

The negative form of the present continuous is quite easy as we just need to add ‘not’ and the sentence becomes negative.  Here are some examples:

  • He is not living in Paris right now, he is living in Nice.
  • I am not going to the cinema at the weekend.
  • We are not studying the new lesson right now.  

We usually use contractions in the negative, especially when speaking.  Here are some examples:

  • We aren’t buying a new car right now.  
  • He isn’t coming with us on holiday.
  • They aren’t doing it correctly.

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 answer can only be yes or no. We cannot answer an open question with yes or no, it needs a full answer.

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 summarize, we use the present continuous for:

  • Actions happening now
  • Unfinished actions
  • Temporary actions
  • Near future actions
  • Changing, growing or developing actions
  • Something which happens again and again

Actions happening now

The 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)

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)

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

Future actions

  • What are you doing at the weekend? (the weekend is in the future but we can use the present continuous).
  • I am meeting my family for dinner at the weekend. (the weekend is in the future)
  • I am going to the cinema tomorrow. (tomorrow is in the future)
  • He is working next week so he isn’t coming on holiday with us. (next week is in the future)

Changing, growing or developing actions

  • You are growing up so quickly.
  • The world is changing so much at the moment.
  • His English is improving.
  • They are becoming very good at swimming.

Something which happens again and again.

It's always raining in England.
The children are always laughing.  They are so happy.
He is always annoying me.  I think he does it on purpose.

The sun is always shining in the UAE.

Note: something which happens again and again is supported by the use of ‘always’.

Some other ways to use the Present Continuous Tense

We can also use the present continuous to describe repeated actions that are annoying.

Examples of this use include:

  • I am always arguing with my sister.
  • She is constantly telling me how tiring her job is.

There are a few other ways to use the present continuous but we will keep them for a later blog as they are not so common.  It is important to understand the most frequent uses of this tense and practice them before moving on to more advanced uses.

When Not to Use Present Continuous Tense

There are certain verbs that cannot be used in the present continuous tense. These are called stative verbs. The following are stative verbs and we generally don’t use the present continuous for them.

  • 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, or something we do on a regular basis. So study the difference between the present simple and the present continuous using our grammar exercises.

Once you have understood the difference between the present simple and the present continuous, it is quite easy to use.  However, some learners tend to overuse it so be careful not to use it when it is not necessary.  For example, “I am understanding now” is incorrect, the correct form is “I understand now”.  

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