Present: Simple or Progressive?

Present Simple and Present Progressive (AKA Continuous) are two fundamentals of English Grammar. Tenses, or time forms, are the thing that causes the biggest groans in English classes (looking at you “Present Perfect”). Here I want to look at the above two in a bit more detail.

When learning a language, people often like to compare it to what they know from their mother tongue. It’s not such an effective learning method, but when the two match up, it can give a reassuring feeling. If you are a German speaker then you have an advantage over many other language speakers when it comes to learning English as there are thousands of these “cognates“, shared vocabulary.

Unfortunately when it comes to grammar it’s another story. For example, while German has Präsens, English has Present Simple and Present Progressive (sometimes called Present Continuous). If you were to translate “I go” it would be “ich gehe” but “I am going” would give the same result. But this doesn’t mean “I go” and “I am going” mean the same thing. So what is the difference?
It comes down to this: Is the action happening one time, either now or in the future or is it a more general action, something that’s repeated, or simply a fact? Let’s think of an example.

Present Simple:   I       teach      English            in Berlin

↑             ↑                 ↑                      ↑

(Subject) (Verb) (Object)       (Circumstance)

(Circumstance just means the time or place where the action happened.)

This is a general situation; I go there everyday Monday to Friday and I’m not talking about any particular day.

Present simple with be:        I        am               an English Teacher              in Berlin.

↑         ↑                                       ↑                                    ↑

(Subject)  (Be)                             (Object)                   (Circumstance)

Here we have no main verb so before the object the verb “be” must be included.

Singular Be Plural Be
1st person I Am 1st Person We Are
2nd Person You Are 2nd Person You Are
3rd Person He/She/It Is 3rd Person They Are

Present Progressive:                I                    am          teaching              at school tomorrow

↑                     ↑                     ↑                          ↑                          ↑

(Subject)             (Be)             (Verb + Ing)       (Object)        (Circumstance)

In this case, I’m talking about a specific occasion i.e. tomorrow. It doesn’t suggest that I do it regularly, it’s only interested in tomorrow. It’s a one time situation.


Present Simple for Future

In “If” sentences, we use the Present Simple to talk about the future. e.g. We’ll get wet if it rains;I’ll get a drink if I go to the kitchen. ‘Rain’ and ‘go’ are the verbs and the action is in the future but we still use the Present Simple.

Another way to use Present Simple for the future is when you talk about things like the cinema and train times, things which are planned. E.g. What time does the film start? It starts at 8pm.When does the train come? Hopefully soon!

Present Progressive for Future

When something is happening in the future and it is planned and decided that it is definitely going to happen then the Present Progressive is the right tense to use. Often people use “Will” but this should be for actions which are a bit more spontaneous.

You can also use it when the action is just about to happen. E.g. I’m going to bed. You can be sitting on the sofa and yawning when you say this, it’s still fine!

How to know it’s Present Simple

Do is an indicator that the sentence is Present Simple. Questions need auxiliary verbs in English for example “Do” and “Be”.

To make a question  in Present Simple we use “Do” before the subject. E.g.

Do you work at an English language school?

  • Yes, I do. (short answer)         Or       Yes, I work at an English school. (Long answer)
  • No, I don’t. (short answer)      Or     No, I don’t work at English school. (Long answer)

If using a Question word (Who, What, Where, etc.) then Do is still before the subject.

What do you do?    When do you work?         Why do you think that?

Another sign is “How often” either in the question e.g. How often do you do sport or in the answer e.g. I walk past the gym every day.

We can look for time periods like everyday, on Mondays, every summer. We can also look for adverbs like often, always, sometimes which don’t really go with progressive tenses.

There are words which mean you do something by saying something. e.g. I promise, I apologise, I insist, I agree, I propose, I suggest etc. These words are for a one time action which is happening now, so logically it should be Present Progressive. But as you’ve probably realised by now, logic doesn’t get you too far with English.

How to know it’s Present Progressive

The way I think about it is “Is the action in progress?” It’s started but it hasn’t finished. I’m sitting in this chair. But if it’s something that’s still going on, even if it’s not happening now that still counts. E.g. I’m reading a book about English grammar at the moment. You can have a break from reading but it’s still there and you’ll (probably) go back to it.

Time periods like now, at the moment, this year, this summer, etc. are good indicators that it’s not a simple tense and therefore could be progressive. Can you think of any others?

If you want to talk about changes happening now, there are some words which usually go with Present Progressive. E.g. start, begin, rise, grow, become, fall, etc.

If you are talking about a temporary situation, you should be using the Present Progressive. I often hear “I am living in Berlin” from people who have spent their whole life here. This is not correct. If it’s a temporary situation like “I’m living in Berlin while I learn German” then that’s fine.

If someone plays computer games as normal hobby, then you would use Present Simple. If they are overdoing it you can say “You are always playing computer games!” This tells us that it’s just too much.

So what do you think? Is there a mistake that you know you sometimes make? Do you think English Grammar is difficult to learn? If you are looking for an English teacher in Berlin let me know!

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