If you speak English, you make use of the English present tense every day. And chances are, if you're not an English scholar or planning on teaching English, you don't know how to explain how each of the four tenses making up the present tense are formed and used (or even that there are four variations!). For the average person; there is one present tense and that's all there is to know. If you want to know more (or plan on teaching English) then knowledge of each of the four minor tenses that make up the present tense is required. The four present tenses are: present simple, present continuous, present perfect and present perfect continuous.
This simple guide will tell you everything you need to know about the second of the present tenses, the present continuous tense.
When is the present continuous tense used?
The present continuous tense is used for:
- Referring to actions and events that are in progress now e.g.
I am swimming; She is painting; They are training for the big race; The storm is approaching
- Referring to current actions and events that are not necessarily taking place at the time of speaking e.g.
I am writing my first novel; I am hoping to be selected as a contestant; I am enjoying my new book
- Referring to actions and events that take place around a regular time, or to emphasize actions and events that happen frequently (with no specific time mentioned) e.g.
He is always running late; They are usually practicing at this time;
- Referring to background events in a present story e.g.
I'm standing there, and guess who walks by?; I'm walking my dog, when this car comes speeding around the corner
How is the present continuous tense formed?
Tenses have three variations: Affirmative, Negative and Question
Note: Present participle = verb + ing; Auxiliary verb "be" = am, are or is
-Affirmative: Subject + auxiliary verb "be" + present participle
I am eating my lunch; They are driving to the mall; She is waiting for them to arrive
-Negative: Subject + auxiliary verb "be" + not + present participle
I am not eating my lunch; They are not driving to the mall; She is not waiting for them to arrive
- Question: Auxiliary verb "be" + subject + present participle
Am I eating my lunch?; Are they driving to the mall?; Is she waiting for them to arrive?
Which auxiliary verb to use
The auxiliary verb "be" has three present forms: am, is and are
When talking about yourself ("I"), use the "am" form e.g. I am going on holiday
When talking about groups, use the "are" form e.g. We are going to the mall
When talking to someone else, use the "are" form e.g. You are doing well
When talking about the third person singular (he, she, it), use "is" e.g. He is running away
When combining the subject with the auxiliary verb "be" (e.g. She is), we do not need to use the full phrase, a shorter version (the contracted version) can be used. Either version is correct, but the contracted version is more natural in English speech and is often seen as more desirable option.
I am = I'm
They are = They're
We are = We're
He is = He's
She is = She's
It is = It's
Notice that all of the contracted versions are made up of the whole subject + an apostrophe + the auxiliary verb "be" minus its first letter.
Keep it simple
It may seem that there is no simple way of learning the English tense system, but by taking one minor tense at a time and practicing its formation and different uses, one will find that the tense system can be learnt fairly quickly. Knowledge of parts of speech and the rules to form each tense is important in the beginning, and once these are fully remembered, practice will see the entire system becoming much easier to understand and use naturally and correctly.