Like most tenses in the English language, there are many reasons for using the present continuous tense. In this blog post, I will explain each use clearly and provide examples and diagrams to help you understand.
This is helpful for students wanting to learn the uses of the present continuous as well as teachers that are teaching the subject.
For more information about how to form present continuous statements and present continuous questions follow the appropriate links. Basically, the present continuous is used to talk about an action that has started in the past and has not yet been completed. Moreover, it is used to talk about longer actions that are in progress but an action that we might not be actually doing at the moment and also things that are going to happen in the near future. Finally, it is also used to describe actions that are negative and cause irritation to the speaker.
Actions that are Happening Now
Most of the time, the present continuous is used to express an action that is happening right at the moment and has not yet finished. Moreover, it is also used to describe an action that isn’t happening at the moment.
Here you can see that the action has started in the past and finished at some point in the near future. For example:
I am walking to school.
John is playing football.
She is not doing homework.
In the first two examples, the subject is doing an activity that will end soon. Moreover, the activity didn’t start a long way into the past. The third examples shows an action that isn’t happening at the moment. The action might have already finished or yet to be started.
This also applies where something that usually happens at a particular time. For example:
At 9 o’clock I am usually walking to school.
John is usually playing football at 3pm.
Longer Continuous Actions
We can also use the present continuous to talk about something that we are in the process of doing but we don’t actually have to be doing it at the exact time of speaking. It’s an action that is in progress. This action could have started at any time in the past (last week, last month, last year, etc.) and could finish at any time in the future (next week, next month, next year, etc.)
Again, we can see that the action started in the past and has not yet finished. Although, we don’t have to be performing the action at the exact time of speaking/writing. For example:
Jane is studying for a degree at university.
He is planning to go on holiday.
In these two examples, we can see that the subject is doing something but not necessarily doing it at the time of writing. The subject might be doing something different and doing the action described in the sentence at another time. For example:
At the moment Jane is working, but she is also studying for a degree in the evenings.
This also implies that something is temporary. At some point the studying for a degree or going on holiday must stop.
Moreover, it can be used to describe something that is improving or developing. For example:
Your English pronunciation is improving.
The children are growing up very fast.
An Action in the Near Future
We sometimes use the present continuous to talk about an action that will happen in the near future. Here the action hasn’t started already, instead it is used to discuss something that you’re planning to do very soon.
I am meeting John after work.
I am not going to the party tonight.
In each of these examples, the subject is going to start the action in the near future.
Repetition and Irritation using “Always”
When the word always (or synonyms like continually, constantly, forever, etc.) is used with the present continuous it expresses something that repeatedly happens and that the repeating action is irritating or shocking. The meaning here is very similar to the present simple but there is a negative emotion. Moreover, you must use the word ‘always’ (or relevant synonym) between the verb ‘be’ and the verb.
As you can see from the diagram, the action is repeating in the past, it has happened in the present, and it is assumed that it will continue to happen in the future. For example:
John is always coming to work late.
He is constantly annoying me.
In these examples, the subject is irritating the speaker somehow and the word always (or synonym) is placed between the verb ‘be’ and the verb.
Moreover, it can also be used to describe something that happens repeatedly, but doesn’t cause irritation.
He’s always studying for his exams.
She’s always laughing and joking.
New and Contrasting
Here the present continuous can also be used to show and action that is new and contrasting from a similar action that used to happen.
Here we can see from the diagram that either 2 different actions have occurred, one in the past and one in at present, or the same action has occurred but there is contrast in that action. These actions are similar, but have differences. For example:
Nowadays, people are sending emails instead of writing letters.
Today, people are travelling around the world a lot more than before.
In the first sentence we can see that 2 different actions are happening. People in the past used to send emails and nowadays they are sending emails. In the second sentence, the same action of travelling is occurring, but there has been an increase.