Why “keep doing” is present simple and not continuous

keep doing continuous tenseI’ve been asked about the tense of “keep writing” – and how it relates to the rules and patterns we use for the present continuous form of “to be writing”. Many verbs can be followed by other verbs in an –ing form, such as “keep doing”, “enjoy doing”, “avoid doing” – but they are not the same as the continuous tense “to be doing”, and are actually used in the present simple tense. A verb like “keep” may be particularly confusing, as it suggests a continuing action. So why is “keep doing” not the same as the present continuous?

Present Simple vs Present Continuous

The best place to start is revising the ground rules of the present simple and continuous tenses. In its simplest form “I do” is a timeless statement, a rule or generalisation, “I am doing” is a temporary action. Consider “I write books” (in general) vs “I am writing a book” (this particular one, at this time).

Now, “to keep” in the present simple can mean “to continue” or “to remain” – essentially to be consistent. The present simple form can be seen clearest when accompanied with an adjective – “I keep quiet” may be used as a timeless/general rule. “I keep quiet during lectures.”

The grammatical structure and purpose is the same when we use a verb instead of an adjective – “I keep doing” means you continue an action, in a timeless/general sense. There is no suggested start or finish – consider “I keep writing blogs” – this is an ongoing, general statement. I continue to do something.

“Keep doing” vs “am doing”

Let’s draw this together with a look at how a present continuous sentence would be different. Here are some example sentences and the key points of difference in grammatical meaning:

  • I write a blog. – A timeless action; specific to one blog (platform) but ongoing and not specific to how much writing will be done or for how long.
  • I am writing a blog. – A temporary action, specific to this one blog which will be complete.
  • I keep writing this blog. – A timeless action; it is specific to a blog but implies multiple (ongoing and countless) periods of writing. This may be because it needs to be continually be rewritten or may be because there is always more to add, for example.

To complete the idea (though it gets a little confusing!), how does “keep doing” relate to the present continuous? As “keep doing” in itself suggests an ongoing action, while “am doing” suggests something now which can be ended, it is not generally correct to form a continuous tense with “keep doing”. “I am keeping doing” would create an emphasis on a temporary continuation, but the repeated –ing forms sound clumsy – however it would be possible if replaced with another verb with the same meaning – “I am continuing”.

There are many verbs that can be followed by –ing forms of other verbs in this way – though I’m afraid there’s no easy way to know which other than by learning them. I’ll revisit this in our next article with some more examples, so stay tuned. And in the meantime if you have any questions do let me know!

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