Grammar Blog - The Two Present Tenses
English has two Present tenses - the Present Simple and the Present Continuous, while most languages have just one. This naturally causes lots of problems for foreign students, who ask "Which tense do I need here?" When students translate into their own languages both tenses might seem possible, but in English there are different tenses for different occasions. We must choose the correct one.
In fact, some verbs are never or rarely used in the continuous tenses. Others can be used in the continuous tenses in some meanings (describing actions) but not in others (describing general states or situations).
Many verbs describe actions. We can say:
I'm working / The children are playing in the garden / It's raining / Mary's looking for a job / Martin is reading a biography of Napoleon / You aren't listening to me / What are they looking at?
In these cases the action is either going on now or has begun but hasn't not finished yet. This is the Present Continuous.
We can also say:
I work five days a week / The children play in the garden after school / It often rains here / Robbie doesn't eat meat / Do you play golf? When does she usually get up?
Here we are talking about repeated (or rare or never-occurring) actions, but not what is happening now. This is the Present Simple.
Some verbs don't describe actions but general states. In these meanings they can't be used in a continuous tense, because they don't refer to a specific moment. The most common of these are:
like / dislike / love / hate / adore / detest / prefer / mind / resent / want / wish / envy / respect / despise / know / understand /doubt / believe / think (meaning believe) /belong / own / possess / have (meaning own) / contain / consist of / owe / need / lack/ deserve / be (normal meaning) / exist / seem / appear (meaning seem) / resemble / signify / mean (signify) / matter
We can say:
I know him very well but not I'm knowing him very well / She seems tired but not She's seeming tired / What sort of music do you like? but not What sort of music are you liking?
Like, Love and Adore are sometimes used in the Present Continuous, with the meaning of enjoy. Similarly, hate can sometimes be used to mean the opposite of enjoy (talking about a temporary situation).
I'm loving it / She's really adoring her skiing holiday / How are you liking the play? / He's really hating every moment of his new course
Remember the differences between:
1 (use one's eyes) We were looking at the picture.
2 (seem) He looks tired.
1 (take the dimensions of) They're measuring the width of the room.
2 (have a size) The room measures five metres by six and a half metres.
1 (assess the weight of) They weighed my case at the check-in.
2 (have a weight of) This suitcase weighs a ton.
1 (inhale the smell of) She was smelling the roses.
2 (give off a smell) The roses smell beautiful.
1 (try the taste of) He's tasting the wine.
2 (have a particular taste) These oranges taste sour.
1 (try, with one's fingers) Joe was feeling the softness of the cloth.
2 (give a physical feeling) This stone feels very smooth. / It feels cold today.
3 (believe) I feel we must give more attention to this problem.
4 (experience an emotion) In this case we can use either a simple or continuous tense: She feels depressed or She's feeling depressed
The verbs listed above can be used in simple or continuous tenses with the first meaning, but only in simple tenses with the second meaning.
Written by Stephen Smith, longstanding English teacher at OISE.
Previous Grammar post by Stephen Smith: The English-learner's most common (and dangerous!) mistake.