Grammar Blog - More on the Present Tenses
As we mentioned in last weeks blog, most languages have one Present Tense but English has two: the Present Simple (she plays tennis) and the Present Continuous (she's playing tennis). Students, translating from English into their own languages, often think that there is no difference in meaning between sentences like these, but in fact there is a big difference, and using the wrong form could cause real misunderstanding.
She plays tennis (Present Simple) means that she sometimes or often plays tennis: Tennis is one of her hobbies, she is an (amateur or professional) tennis player. It doesn't mean that she's in the middle of a game of tennis now.
She's playing tennis (Present Continuous) means that she's in the middle of a game of tennis now.
Compare these sentences:
The sentences in the first column, on the left, describe an action that is happening now,at this moment, while the sentences in the other column don't concern the present moment but describe repeated(or never-occurring) actions.
The four-word question: What do you do? normally means What's your job?
What do you do? - I work in advertising.
The Present Simple is often used with adverbs of frequency:
always / usually / normally / generally / often / frequently / sometimes / occasionally / rarely / seldom /hardly ever / ever / never
These usually come just before the verb:
She always gets up very early / Helen rarely comes to see us / I hardly ever take the train / Marie doesn't normally make this mistake / These adverbs usually come before the verb.
They can also come right at the beginning of the sentence (sometimes followed by a comma):
Occasionally, he decides to tidy up his flat / Often, she forgets to take her key / Usually we spend the summer in Provence / Sometimes these verbs come at the beginning of the sentence.
The Present Simple can also used with other expressions referring to repeated time, such as:
every day / every week / every year / at weekends ( = every weekend, or most weekends) / at Christmas / in the morning ( = every morning, or most mornings) / after dinner
We describe a typical routine in the Present Simple:
I get up at seven o'clock. I have a shower, then get dressed and have breakfast. I leave the house at eight o'clock and walk to the bus stop. Usually I don't have to wait very long, but sometimes the traffic is heavy and the bus arrives late.
Similarly, if we want to ask questions about a routine, about what always, usually or sometimes happens, we use the Present Simple (with do or does) and, if necessary, words such as when / what time / where / how / how often / why:
Do you play golf? / Does Margaret speak French? / How many languages does she speak? / Do you drive to school every day? / How do you go to to school?
NOTE: The Present Continuous means in the middle of an action, even if it isn't at this moment. It's possible to say:
At six o'clock I'm always doing my homework. ( = I've begun but haven't finished.)
Whenever I see him he's repairing his car. ( = He's in the middle of this work.)
We also use the Present Continuous for longer actions which have begun but which haven't finished yet, even if the action isn't happening at this moment:
We're looking for house. ( = We started looking some time ago, and haven't found one yet. At this moment, however, we aren't necessarily looking at houses. Perhaps we are at home, having dinner.)
Our team is playing very well this season. ( = Last season they didn't play so well, but at the beginning of this season they began to play better. I hope this will continue. This doesn't mean that they are playing at this moment.)
Other uses of the Present Continuous:
We also use the Present Continuous to talk about a fixed plan for the (usually near) future:
Are you coming to the office party? / Jules is arriving next Friday. I'm meeting him at the station. / We aren't going away this summer. / What are you doing tomorrow?
In the present, we can use always + the Present Continuous to describe a repeated action that we may find annoying. Here, always means very often or too often rather than literally always ( = every time).
He's always asking me the same question / I'm always losing my keys. / She's always complaining about her job, but she never looks for another one.
Written by Stephen Smith, longstanding English teacher at OISE.
Previous grammar post by Stephen Smith: Verbs not usually used in continuous tenses