“She says” or “She’s saying”? When to use Present Simple or Present Continuous

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Do you ever get frustrated not knowing which tense to use?

This week we’re going to look at the differences between the present simple (I walk, you walk, she walks etc) and the present continuous (I’m walking, you’re walking, she’s walking etc).

There is only one now – why can’t we just have one present tense? So what’s the difference?

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We have two present tenses in English because the relationship between time (“real” present, “real” past, or “real” future) and the verb forms (tenses) we use is not direct. The English speaker uses the verb to talk about what happens or is happening –and by choosing one or the other ALSO shows how s/he sees that event. Choosing simple or continuous show that the speaker sees the event as EITHER:

  1. complete OR ongoing;
  2. repeated OR one-off;
  3. a state OR an action.

These distinctions can be difficult when you are learning English, and many people continue making mistakes even when they have reached a high level.

However, remembering these 3 main differences will help you to choose the correct present tense in English.

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First, let’s look at the Present Simple (I walk, you walk, he walks etc.). This is used for

  • general time: an unchanging, repeated, or reoccurring action or situation (e.g. The sun rises in the east. Peter works in Cork city.)
    • narration of stories and summaries of story plots as these are seen as unchanging – they are the same every time you read the story  (e.g. Romeo meets Juliet at a party in Act I.)
    • instructions or directions  – again, they are the same every time (e.g. To get to the post office, you go straight on and then you turn left.)
    • scheduled or timetabled future events – and yes, again, they are the same every time! (e.g. The train leaves at nine.)
  • We also use the Present Simple for written expressions to express formality (e.g. I look forward to hearing from you)
  • Verbs which describe states are almost always used in the simple from. A state is seen as an unchanging characteristic, NOT as an action. State verbs (or stative verbs) describe:
    • mental or emotional states (e.g. believe, love, suppose, recognise)
    • use of the senses (e.g. hear, appear, look, seem, smell)
    • communicating and/or causing reactions (e.g. impress, mean, agree, promise)
    • relations (e.g. be, contain, possess, fit, need)

There is a video clip as well as a list of stative verbs and examples of their correct and incorrect use in a handy pdf document at http://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/stative-verbs.html

The present simple is NOT used to describe temporary or incomplete situations or actions.   

Got it? Good!

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Now let’s move on to the Present Continuous (I’m walking, you’re walking, he’s walking etc.). This expresses

  • temporary situations or actions occurring now and around now; i.e. before, during and after the moment of speaking (e.g. What are you doing? I’m baking a cake for Tom’s birthday.) They may or may not be completed.
  • actions or events in progress at or around a particular time (e.g. At 7 o’clock I’m usually having my shower).
  • trends, developing and/or changing situations (e.g. The world is getting warmer.)
  • future actions or events where the ‘root’ of the action is in the present because it is planned or started in some way (e.g. I’m having dinner with Nick tonight.)
  • (with adverbs such as always, constantly, continually) frequently repeated events which are unexpected, unplanned or irritating to the speaker (e.g. My sister’s always borrowing my clothes!)

You could say that the main feature of the continuous tenses is to express an action in progress and the secondary characteristics are to express temporary and/or incomplete actions. The continuous shows that the speaker sees the event described as being ongoing and temporary (unlike the simple, in which events are seen as complete, repeated or permanent).  

We therefore use the Present Continuous for actions. We use dynamic verbs (or action verbs), not stative verbs.

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Continuous vs. Simple: so why do we sometimes use one and then the other?

Some areas of different uses of the two verb forms:

  • Verbs which describe actions, or dynamic verbs, can be used in the continuous or the simple, depending on whether the speaker sees the event as repeated/permanent or temporary; e.g.  I walk to work every day vs. I’m walking to work this week while my car’s being fixed. This also applies to longer events. I’m living in London while I look for a job vs. I live in London.
  • Repeated events are viewed differently in the simple and the continuous. The simple is used for regularly repeated events or habits; whereas the continuous expresses the repetition of short actions tied to the moment of speaking (e.g. He’s hitting the horse to make it go faster) or with an adverb such as always, constantly etc., to describe frequent, unexpected, and/or irritating actions/events (e.g. She’s always giving the children chocolate.)
  • Some verbs can be either stative or dynamic. These include verbs such as think: opinion = stative e.g. I think all politicians are corrupt; or mental process = dynamic e.g. She’s thinking about marrying him. Other such verbs include see (understand/perceive      vs. meet) and have (possess vs. actions such as have a shower, have breakfast etc.). See http://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/stative-verbs.html for a list.

We can think of the difference between stative and dynamic in terms of “willed” and “non-willed” qualities. There are some examples on http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/progressive.htm :

Two plus two equals four. Equals is inert, stative, and cannot take the progressive; there is no choice, no volition in the matter. (We would not say, “Two plus two is equalling four.”). … In the same way, “She is being a good worker” (because she chooses to be so), but “She is (is being) an Olympic athlete” (because once she becomes an athlete she no longer “wills” it).

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Aha! THAT’S the difference!

Remember to trust your instinct: if you read, listen to and speak as much English as you can, you soon get a “feel” for  the language. You know straight away that *I’m knowing her ‘sounds wrong’ and develop your recognition of the 3 main differences at the top of this article.

Go on- can you remember them? Here’s a little reminder:

  • complete OR ongoing;
  • repeated OR one-off;
  • a state OR an action

A song such as Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer” uses both tenses. The singer habitually ‘says a little prayer’ throughout her daily routine, which is all presented in the present simple, but she also demonstrates the use of the present continuous with some ‘while -ing’ clauses. You could try writing another verse (and sing along!)

Have you found this blog useful? Please post any comments you have!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jaho says:

    Thank you!
    Your blog is very useful!

  2. Indranil Bar says:

    Thank you.Very very useful information.keep it up.

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