In this lesson you’ll learn what the continuous tense means and how it is used and constructed with the present tense as the present continuous.
The Present Continuous Diagramed
Diagram: The Present Continuous
Present Continuous I - What The Continuous Means
Present Continuous II - State Verbs
Lesson: The Difference Between the Present Simple and the Present Continuous
The following was given by one of our instructors in response to a question asked by a user on quora.com.
What is the difference between present simple and present continuous in meaning?
I’ve been giving individual lessons to individual adult professionals for the past 9 years. I’ve read the other answers here and think I can provide a unique insight and maybe a better answer to the actual question of what the difference in MEANING is between the present simple and continuous.
The answers given are pretty much what you would find in most grammar books and are good as descriptions of all of the kinds of situations that the present simple and continuous are used in. But if we can look a layer deeper at what, behind those situations, these tenses actually mean, you’ll have something a lot more memorable and powerful, and finally a lot more useful at improving your understanding and speech. When taught this way, most of my students’ problems with the continuous and simple are gone in 3–6 weeks of lessons.
So what do the continuous and simple mean? It’s easiest to start by thinking about what the continuous means. Consider these two sentences: 1) “I live abroad.” 2) “I am living abroad.” The two are exactly the same except that the first is in the simple and the second in the continuous. If, therefore, we know the difference in meaning that a native speaker would hear between the two, we can understand what the difference between the simple and continuous ARE – more specifically, as we’ll discuss, we’ll know what meaning the continuous ADDS to the meaning of the simple.
“I live abroad.”
– “I am living abroad.”
The difference that a native speaker hears is that the second sentence might be or is probably TEMPORARY. This difference exists because this is the meaning that the continuous HAS and ADDS to the meaning that already exists without it (in this case to the meaning of the present simple).
Looking more closely, the meanings of “live” in the sentence “I live abroad” are: 1) the meaning of the verb “to live” – whatever that meaning is (alive, doing all the things that people do when alive, etcetera) and 2) NOW. And the meaning of “am living” in “I am living abroad” are: 1) again, the meaning of the verb “to live”, 2) NOW, and 3) TEMPORARY.
simple = 1) verb + 2) now
continuous = 1) verb + 2) now + 3) temporary
The meaning of the continuous is ADDED to the meaning of the simple. The present simple means NOW, and the present continuous means NOW, BUT ONLY NOW (temporary).
In this way, we can start to see that present simple doesn’t really have all of the meanings that you’ve probably been told it does. It doesn’t really mean “in general”, “always”, “habitually”. It is used for those cases simply because everything has to be in SOME tense, it is true NOW, and it is USUALLY not logical to ADD the meaning of TEMPORARY in those situations. We can see this by seeing that if it is logical to add the meaning of temporary to one of these situations, we actually will use the continuous. Take this example:
“I go to museums and cultural activities on the weekend.”
Now, normally, as a habitual action, we would use put this in the simple as we have done – not really because it is a habitual action, but because normally we don’t know about any end coming to habitual activities in relevant time frames – in other words, it isn’t usually LOGICAL to say (add the meaning by using the continuous) that a habitual action is temporary.
But what if it is logical to say this? What if we’re just on a 2-month business trip in Paris, for example, and going to museums is something that we’re doing while we’re there that will obviously stop when we go home. Well, then we WOULD use the continuous and say:
“I am going to museums and cultural activities on the weekend (while I’m here).”
In the end, the easiest and best way to understand the present simple is that it doesn’t mean anything at all except NOW. It is kind of the DEFAULT tense for the present – we use it when none of the meanings of the other tenses that CAN be ADDED to it fit. So when distinguishing between the present simple and the present continuous, you only have to think TEMPORARY or NOT TEMPORARY – logical to talk about in a temporary way (and want to or have to) OR not logical to talk about in a temporary way – and use the continuous for the first and the simple for the second.
I hope this helps. You’ll find more explanations like these as well as free video lessons, exercises, and other learning resources on my website at https://rapidenglish.eu.
Lesson: What the Present Continuous Doesn't Mean
If this is the first time you’re hearing from me about it, you’ll probably be surprised to have me tell you that the continuous does not actually mean “right now”. It doesn’t mean this and it isn’t in my opinion really at all a good way to think about it. The sooner you are able to forget this “right now” principle, the sooner you should be able to understand the continuous better and use it correctly more often.
To help convince you to forget it, I’d like to try to prove to you that this “right now” meaning is wrong. To learn more about what it actually does mean, see the other materials about the continuous on this site. But keep reading. If you’re like most people, you need convincing about this, and it’s better if you are convinced. I should be able to do that here.
The Present Continuous Doesn’t Mean “Right Now”
The problem with thinking about the continuous as meaning “right now” is a practical one and that is that it leads to an overly and unnecessarily complex system of ideas and rules for understanding it.
In general, the less true a principle is, the more often it doesn’t work – doesn’t do what is supposed to in other words, which is to systematically predict and explain something, and the more often rule exceptions have be added to keep it usable.
This is what happens when we start with the idea of “right now” for the continuous. It doesn’t work a lot of the time, and new rules need to be added keep it working, and it all gets too complicated and is hard to do right.
Let’s look at some cases of this.
“I live in Europe.”
This is “right now” isn’t it? But we used present simple. Oh, well, you’ve been told, it means “right now” EXCEPT for when we’re talking about things “in general”. But what’s really in general about “me living in Europe.” Not much that I can tell. It’s definitely not something true in general as a statement like “clouds produce rain.” What has really happened is that you’ve been given a bad rule that doesn’t work, and to make up for it not working, you’ve been given another bad rule.
Things like this remind me of how in the Middle Ages, the people then had to theorize all kinds of insane orbits for the planets in order not to break their two starting assumptions that the earth was the center of the universe and that heavenly orbits were circular. The analogous assupmtion for the continuous would be that it means “now” fundamentally.
So anyway, if you’re going along with this philosophy of “now, except in general”, now you have to think about two things whenever you need to decide if you should use the continuous or not. If you had a better, truer starting principle, you wouldn’t, but now with this bad rule you do.
“I am living in Europe.”
“I am reading a book about…”
“The situation looks bad.”
This is about right now, too, isn’t it? Oh, but that’s a “state verb” you’ve been told. Well, here’s there’s some truth and it’s impossible to avoid this idea completely. There are real exceptions with state verbs, but not as many you’ve been taught. A lot lot of the time state verbs follow a better (as in more correct) general rule about the meaning of the continuous than “right now” – which we’ll discuss later in this article.
The verb “look” as in the last example sentence follows this better general rule.
The situation is looking bad.
This is a correct sentence. The standard curriculum would agree that it is correct, but instead of doubting their “right now” definition for the present continuous, they would tell you that it’s another exception. AN EXCEPTION FOR AN EXCEPTION.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see clearly what you would probably think of as unlikely – that and idea taught around the world for 100’s of years is more or less bunk.
Exercise: Present Continuous Or Simple? - Temporary Or Not Temporary? (With Explanations)
- He often ____________________ (travel) by plane.
commentaryThere’s unlikely to be any good reason to think about the activity of the verb as temporary in any relevant context – the length of his career (if he travels for work, for example) or his life are too long to be considered relevant contexts.
- Where ____________________ (he/work)?
show answerdoes he OR is he working
commentaryIf there is any reason to think about or talk about his work as something that might be temporary then we CAN (but don’t have to) use the continuous. If we don’t, then we should use the simple.
- Mom isn’t here. She ____________________ (take) the dog for a walk.
show answeris taking
commentaryThis is a particular instance – one case, one example – of an activity, and these are always temporary.
- The bathroom is free. No one ____________________ (to use) it.
show answeris using
commentaryThis is a negative case of a particular instance/case/example happening. Particular instances of verbs are always temporary.
- Karl ____________________ (to play) for a rugby team in the UK. His team ____________________ (to win) most of their matches.
show answerplays / wins
commentaryIn the context, there is no good reason to think of the activity of either of these verbs as temporary. If there were such a context both verbs could be put in the continuous – as long as that was really meaning meant.
- She usually ____________________ (to go out) on the weekend, but this weekend she ____________________ (to stay) in because it’s so cold.
show answergoes out / is staying
commentaryThere’s no reason in the context to think of how she normally spends her weekend in a temporary way. If there were, we could use the continuous. And her staying in this weekend is a particular instance/case/example of her staying in, which logically, by definition is temporary and therefore needs the continuous.
- Alex is a programmer – he ____________________ (to write) code for a game developer in Minsk. Right now, he ____________________ (to debug) the code from a scene in a game.
show answerwrites / is debugging
commentaryThere’s no reason in the context to think of the work Alex does in a temporary way. If there were, we could use the continuous. And him coding right now is a particular instance/case/example of him doing this, which logically, by definition is temporary and therefore needs the continuous.
- Caroline ____________________ (to eat) right now. She ____________________(not/usually/ to take) her lunch at work, but she’s hungry and has an important deadline at the end of the day.
show answeris eating / doesn’t usually take
commentaryCaroline eating right now is a particular instance/case/example of her doing this, which logically, by definition is temporary and therefore needs the continuous. There’s no reason in the context, on the other hand, to think of the way that she takes her lunch as being temporary and we should therefore, put this verb in the simple.
Exercise: Present Continuous Or Simple? – II
- Light ____________________ (to travel) at 299,792,458 meters per second.
- I ____________________ (to get) burned. My skin’s all red already. Let’s go out of the sun somewhere.
show answeram getting
- Haha, look. That car ____________________ (to go) the wrong way down a one-way street.
show answeris going
- My dog is wagging his tail. I wonder what he ____________________ (to dream) about.
show answeris dreaming
- Eggs ____________________ (to boil) in about 10 minutes more or less depending on how hard you want them.
- Let’s turn the light on. It ____________________ (to get) dark.
show answeris getting
- I ____________________ (usually / to wake up) early.
show answerusually wake up
- Do you understand? Do you follow me? Yes, yes, I ____________________ (to listen).
show answeram listening
- How about your new employee? How ____________________ (he / to perform)?
show answeris he performing
- My best friend is always a really good sport. He ____________________ (never / to get) upset when he loses.
show answernever gets
- She doesn’t seem very healthy. She ____________________ (always / to sneeze).
show answeris always sneezing
Exercise: Present Continuous Or Simple? – III
- It should be a nice day. The sun ____________________ (to shine).
show answeris shining
- Most Dutch people ____________________ (to speak) at least three languages.
- Good luck in your game. We ____________________ (all / to root) for you.
show answerare all rooting
- ____________________ (you / to use) the computer? No, go for it. It’s all yours.
show answerAre you using
- ____________________ (you / to check) your phone every morning when you wake up? Duh, yeah.
show answerDo you check
- The remains of Pompeii ____________________ (to sit) at the foot of the remains of Mount Vesuvius.
- Your client ____________________ (to wait). He ____________________ (to sit) in the lobby.
show answeris waiting / is sitting
- ____________________ (I / usually / to read) nonfiction, but now ____________________ (I / to read) a novel.
show answerI usually read / I am reading
- Hey, I heard you broke your leg. How is it? Not bad. It feels like it ____________________ (to heal) quickly.
show answeris healing
- Leonard, what are you doing? I ____________________ (to watch) sports. I ____________________ (always / to watch) sports on Sundays.
show answeram watching / always watch
- Oh no. Did you bring your umbrella? It looks like it ____________________ (to start) to rain.
show answeris starting
- Do you know how to type? No, but I ____________________ (to learn). I ____________________ (to take) a typing class.
show answeram learning / am taking
- Normally ____________________ (I / to eat) eggs for breakfast, but I’m on a special diet now, so ____________________ (I / not / to eat) breakfast at all.
show answerI eat eggs / I don’t eat OR I’m not eating
- Wild tigers ____________________ (to live) in Asia. Oh, really? I am from California, but ____________________ (currently / to live) in Switzerland.
show answerlive / am currently living
- My car broke down, so I ____________________ (to get) it fixed. In the meantime, I ____________________ (to ride) the subway to work.
show answeram getting / ride OR am riding
- What ____________________ (you / to do) for fun? When I have time, I like to go out, but lately I ____________________ (I / to do / nothing / but / to work).
show answerdo you do / I do nothing but work OR I am doing nothing but working
- Hi, what are you doing? Not much: watching a movie. It’s boring. I usually really like Stanley Kubrick films, but this one ____________________ (to put) me to sleep.
show answeris putting
Exercise: Present Continuous Or Simple? – IV
- Oh no. I locked my keys in the car. Ooo, really, again? You __________ (to make) that mistake a lot.
show answermake OR are making
- The power is out again. No wifi. Man, is this the third world? The power _____________________ (always / to go out).
show answeralways goes out OR is always going out
- There’s a (hippy) rock festival next week. I bought tickets. Haha, ok. You ____________________ (to hang out) to those things all the time lately. Are you a hippy?
show answerhang out OR are hanging out
- There was another coup in my country this month. I guess we have a funny country. We ____________________ (to stage) coups constantly.
show answerstage coups OR are staging coups