As the present simple has complex uses, often relating to timeless facts, the present continuous is the main tense we use for talking about what is happening now. It can describe temporary actions that are happening (ongoing) now, processes of change, habits, and, informally, to express some temporary states. Below is a quick guide to these different uses:
Using the present continuous for temporary actions
The present continuous is mostly used for actions or events that have been started but are not yet finished. More simply: for ongoing actions.
The action or event must be taking place for a limited time (it is not a general fact or rule), and this includes the time of speaking.
- I am walking home. (I am doing it now.)
- He is busy studying that book. (He is doing it now.)
- Where is that cat going? (The cat is going somewhere now.)
The present continuous is often taught as something happening now, but it may be a repeated event or an interrupted process that takes place in a period of time including now. The time of the sequence may include now, even if the actual action or event is not currently occurring.
- He is reading a book. (He is in the process of reading it, but is not necessarily reading at this moment.)
- They are building a house. (Gradually.)
- We are learning to speak English. (Maybe not at this moment, but over a period of time.)
The action or event therefore does not have to be physically occurring now, but the speaker is talking within a current period of time.
The present continuous and processes of change
The present continuous can be used to describe a process of change, which is common with verbs such as increase, decrease, become, develop, expand, get, and grow. This can demonstrate a general change:
- Unemployment is rising.
- The weather is getting warmer.
It can also show something more specific, such as a personal or more short-term change:
- The music in Jane’s room is getting louder.
These processes are usually temporary.
To see the difference between the present simple and present continuous when we describe a change, the important question to ask is does the process have a possible ending?
- Howard is getting fat. (Temporarily, because he cannot get fatter forever.)
- Howard gets fat when he eats chocolate. (Timeless, because this is a general rule: every time he eats chocolate it happens. It is not a single event or a specific time.)
Frequent activities and the present continuous
Though the present simple is usually used to show the frequency of repeated events and habits, the present continuous can be used to emphasise a repeated action. This is usually because the action is repetitive, and the present continuous can stress irritation. It is often used with adverbs like always, forever, and constantly.
- I’m always washing the dishes in this house.
- They are constantly arguing.
In both of these examples, the present simple could also be used, for a more neutral, factual statement.
- I always wash the dishes.
- They constantly argue.
These simple sentences only describe the actions, while the present continuous adds a more negative emotion.
The present continuous is sometimes used, in colloquial English, to show desires, senses, appearances and related states, to emphasise that these are temporary.
For actions and events describing states and senses, it is grammatically correct to use the present simple, and learners of English should avoid the present continuous, as it will mostly be incorrect and can lead to serious mistakes.
However, do note that English speakers sometimes choose the present continuous as a matter of style, or to emphasise the temporary nature of the state.
- He’s looking very smart. (At this moment.)
- I’m loving this burger. (Said whilst eating, demonstrating it is temporary.)