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The Simple Present and the Present Continuous Tenses in English

For students who are learning English, it can be difficult to understand the difference between the simple present and the present continuous tenses.

In order to choose the appropriate tense when one is writing or speaking, it is important to understand the purpose that each tense serves.

Purpose of the Simple Present Tense
Oftentimes, the simple present tense is used to explain a fact. Facts are commonly expressed in the form of the “be” verb. For example, “My friend is tall” and “Joe Biden is the current President of the United States” are both statements of fact that use “is” (the third-person singular simple present of “be”) to explain a situation.

Additionally, the simple present tense can be used to express a habit. A habit is an activity that someone does on a regular basis. For example, the sentence “I go to work at 9:00 every morning” demonstrates an activity that happens daily. Therefore, it is a habit and we use the simple present tense (in this case “go”) to show that it happens regularly. In many sentences that illustrate a habit, there are words that give the reader a clue as to the nature of the activity. Words like “every day,” “generally,” “regularly,” or “each week” can indicate a habit, and by extension, the need for the use of the simple present tense.

Beyond these uses, we also employ the simple present tense to indicate that an event is scheduled to happen in the near future. For example, "write my paper for me at 6:00 tonight" tells the reader or listener that the act will happen at a particular time later today.

Lastly, we often use the simple present tense to discuss books and movies. When we summarize a book or movie, we generally treat the characters as if they are living and we describe them using present tense verbs.

Purpose of the Present Continuous (Progressive) Tense
The present continuous (sometimes called “ present progressive”) tense is generally used to explain an event that is in progress at the current moment. For example, the sentence “I am eating dinner right now” indicates to the reader/listener that this action is currently happening. The person began to eat at a time in the past, although the particular time is not important. The person is still eating right now, and they will finish at some point in the future. So, this action spans a period of time. Accordingly, ESL students can look for words that imply a period of time in order to help them identify when to use this tense. Phrases like “right now” or “at the moment” are helpful signals.

The present continuous (progressive), like the simple present, can also be used to explain an event that is scheduled to happen in the relatively near future. For example, a person might say “I am playing basketball with Otis tonight.” In this case, the plan to play basketball will happen in the relatively near future, i.e. "tonight."

Interchangeability of the Tenses
In certain cases, the simple present tense and present continuous tense are interchangeable. This happens at times when the information could be seen as either a fact/habit or as an event in progress (or both). For example, the statements “I live in California” and “I am living in California” are both acceptable. “I live in California” implies that the person views this situation as a fact or condition. The sentence “I am living in California” emphasizes the idea that this action is in progress: the person began living in California at some unknown time in the past, is still living there now, and will likely continue living there into the future.

Value of Understanding the Tenses
Understanding the way in which these tenses function is crucial to refining and perfecting one’s ability to use them correctly. For more practice with the simple present and present continuous, please visit the “Learning English online” website. And, for help with spelling or the use of the third person singular form in the present tense, please see "ESL Students Often Face Difficulty with the Simple Present Tense."

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