Present Continuous or Present Progressive?

By | August 18, 2013

In some ESL grammar books you’ll see the words ‘Present Continuous’ and in others you will see the words ‘Present Progressive’. One of my students asked me what is the difference between the two. I explained to them, as I was taught, that they are the same thing, just some people prefer ‘continuous’ and some prefer ‘progressive’.

present continuous or present progressiveThis, however, isn’t strictly true. In some languages, like English, there is no distinction between the two and they are actually formed the same way using the verb -ing form.  But in other languages, like Chinese, there is a distinction between the two. In languages where there is a distinction between the two, the progressive aspect is used to express that the action is still in progress and the continuous aspect is used to express the state of the subject that is continuing the action.

For most students of English, native speakers and even some teachers this can be quite a difficult thing to understand! To begin clarifying this for you, ‘present’ is a tense, but both ‘continuous’ and ‘progressive’ are not tenses, they are grammatical aspects. Tenses are used to mark when an action happens whereas aspects give temporal information like duration, completion, or frequency. Therefore, we can see that in both instances, the action is happening now, but it it is the grammatical aspect of both ‘continuous’ and ‘progressive’ that differs.

As stated above, there is no distinction between these two aspects in the English language and both the “Present Continuous” and “Present Progressive” terms are used interchangeably. In other languages, however, the distinction is important.

In the Chinese language, we’ll use the following two expressions to discuss the differences between the two aspects.

1. I am putting on clothes. (Present Progressive)

2. I am wearing clothes. (Present Continuous)

In the first sentence, the subject is actively putting on clothes whereas in the second sentence the subject is only wearing them. The first sentence is expressing that the action of putting on clothes in still in progress. On the other hand, the second sentence shows the state of the subject. I.e. that the subject is wearing clothes. In English, however, this distinction isn’t used and it isn’t necessary to teach this distinction to ESL students. I find it best to keep things simple with my ESL students and tell them that they are the same thing in the English language. Trying to explain the difference between the two to English learners isn’t necessary and will only confuse the students.

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Image “Portrait Of Thinking Man Wearing Woollen Cap” by imagerymajestic courtesy of