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Present Continuous

The present continuous verb tense indicates that an action or condition is happening now, frequently, and may continue into the future.

The Present Continuous Formula: to be [am, is, are] + verb [present participle]

Aunt Christine is warming up the car while Scott is looking for his new leather coat. They are eating at Scott’s favorite restaurant today, Polly’s Pancake Diner.

Key words: Verb, present participle, tense, dynamic verbs, stative verbs

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The present continuous (present progressive) tense is a way to convey any action or condition that is happening right now, frequently, and may be ongoing. It adds energy and action to writing, and its effect helps readers understand when the action is happening. Imagine Aunt Christine has surprised her nephew Scott for his birthday and is going to take him out to his favorite restaurant, Polly’s Pancake Diner. If I wanted to tell the story after it happened, I’d use the past tense:

They waited at the red light, and Scott worried they might miss their reservation. (Past tense)

Present Continuous

But what I really want to convey is how the event unfolded, showing the action as it is happening:

They are sitting at Scott’s favorite booth, the one with the sparkling red plastic seats.(For how long? We don’t know, but we do know they are sitting there now.)
The waiter is standing behind the counter right now with a notepad in his hand and pencil behind his ear. (Will he ever make it over to the booth? Probably, but not now.)
Are you waiting to open your presents after you eat your pancakes?” said Aunt Christine, taking a sip from her root beer. (Here the present continuous is being used in question form.)

From this narrative point of view, the action is immediate and continuous; there’s momentum. Sometimes writers use this tense to add suspense or humor in fictional pieces. What kind of pancakes will Scott and his aunt order? The suspense is killing me!

The Present Continuous Formula

To form the present continuous, follow this formula:

To Be [Am, Is, Are] + Verb [Present Participle]

When to Use the Present Continuous Tense

Use the present continuous tense with the appropriate “to be” verb and a dynamic verb. A dynamic verb shows action and/or process. For example,

Scott’s little sister is arriving at the diner two hours late because her roller-derby team, Chicks Ahoy, won the national championships early today. As she is walking into Polly’s Pancake Diner, she is yelling goodbye to her friends outside, and Scott hopes she doesn’t cause a scene since she is always embarrassing him in public.

When Not to Use the Present Continuous Tense

Do not use the present continuous tense with stative verbs. Stative verbs show a state of being that does not show qualities of change. These verbs can stay in the simple present. For example,

Aunt Christine is preferring the maple walnut pancakes over the banana peanut butter ones that Scott loves.
Aunt Christine prefers the maple walnut pancakes over the banana peanut butter ones that Scott loves.

Here, the stative verb to prefer shows opinion, and therefore should not be conjugated into the present continuous. Stative verb categories include emotion (to love), possession (to belong), and thoughts (to recognize), and none of these should use the present continuous form.

The Exception to the Rule

Some verbs can be both dynamic and stative! Think about the verbs to be and to think. In its dynamic form, the verb to be can show action:

Sarah, Scott’s little sister, is being bold by ordering the jalapeno-chipotle pancakes.

But in its stative form, the verb to be is awkward if conjugated in the present continuous.

Sarah is being a tall teenager, who loves her food spicy and her sports dangerous.
Sarah is a tall teenager, who loves her food spicy and her sports dangerous.

Here are some more examples:

The waiter thinks Scott should save room for pumpkin pie. (Stative and in the simple present)
The waiter is thinking about getting a new job that requires less human interaction, like a veterinarian. (Dynamic and in the present continuous)

Idiomatic Expressions and Style

English can be confusing; what is grammatically correct isn’t always what you might hear in music, in advertisements, or during regular conversations. The present continuous is often used incorrectly. Consider the popular slogan for McDonald’s: “I’m Lovin’ It.” This is a grammatically incorrect sentence because to love is a stative verb, so why would McDonald’s use it in their advertisements?

This marks the difference between grammar and style. Using the present continuous as a means to exaggerate is a stylistic trend, and as such, it would not be surprising to hear this conversation:

Scott, glazed with a chocolate mustache, looks over to his aunt and says, “I’m lovin’ me some of these chocolate peanut butter banana pancakes!” “I’m hearing what you’re saying!” she replies, sprinkling powdered sugar atop the stacks on her plate.

Here Scott and his Aunt display their excitement in a silly way, emphasizing their feelings. On the other hand, you would never hear a native speaker say these sentences:

Scott is loving his Aunt Christine, a self-proclaimed pancake connoisseur. (People would simply say “Scott loves his Aunt Christine . . .”)
Sarah is hearing the music from their table-top juke box and resists the urge to dance on the table. (Sarah hears the music. . .)

The Final Say

If you are teaching English or learning it, I’d recommend simply sticking to grammatically correct constructions and leaving the idiomatic expressions to the creators of advertisements and song lyrics. In formal writing, the experts recommend that when you can use fewer words to express a thought, you should, so use the present continuous sparingly—short and sweet can’t be beat!

Common Construction in the Present Continuous Tense

Pres cont 1


Common Dynamic Verbs that USE the Present Continuous

Pres cont 2

Common Stative Verbs that DO NOT USE the Present Continuous

Pres cont 3

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