When To Use The Present Continuous Tense: The Definitive Guide

What are you doing right now? Are you reading? Or eating? Or browsing Instagram?

If you answered my question, then you most likely used one of the most common and useful tenses in the English language – the present continuous, or as some may call it, the present progressive. It is perhaps one of the most important tenses to master as it does not only belong to the group of present tenses, but it is absolutely essential for natural-sounding conversations. As such, it’s rather conclusive that nailing this tense is important. Fortunately, the present continuous is pretty easy to discern.

What exactly is the present continuous?

You can interpret the use of the present continuous at face value. As you may have rightly guessed, it is used to talk about actions that are happening at the moment of speaking. In other words, talking about actions that are taking place right now. If you’re just starting out on your English journey, then you can always refer to the present continuous as the “what are you doing tense” so that you can familiarise yourself with the gist of when to use this tense.

For example, how would you respond if your friend asked you, “What are you doing?”. You might say, “I’m eating lunch.”, or “I’m playing video games.”, for instance. You might not have realised it, but you would have actually responded using the present continuous. It is crucial to note, however, that this tense is used to talk about present actions that have not yet finished.

The present continuous is also used to talk about ongoing or long-term actions. For example, “I’m studying law.”, “You’re working in the UK.”, “They’re living in France for the year.”. The common trait between all of these statements is that they refer to actions which are occurring now, and will continue taking place for the long-term. These actions are not concluding any time soon.

That being said, there are additional purposes to the present continuous that may seem contradictory to what we have just established. In fact, this tense can be used to talk about actions that are going to happen in the future. Now this may seem confusing at first, so let’s break it down for you with some guidelines that will help you to discern whether the present continuous is appropriate or not. You can use this tense to talk about a future action that is definite, concrete and organised. Usually these actions have some sort of intention behind it. To illustrate, some examples might be, “I’m moving to America next week.”, or “I’m meeting with my teacher on Thursday afternoon.”. These examples have intention whereby the speaker has planned and organised the event. They talk about a concrete situation at a specific moment in time. So as you can see, the present continuous can also be used to talk about planned future events.

Finally, the present continuous can be used to describe behaviour and habits as well as changing character traits. Let’s pretend we are talking about our brother. You might say to someone, “He’s always annoying me.”, or “He’s always chewing too loud and he’s always forgetting to do his homework.”. For such cases, sentences usually necessitate an adverb (always, constantly etc.) to indicate that this behaviour happens frequently.

But if you want to talk about an ongoing changing trait, you could say something like this, “She’s growing up so fast!”, “Wow! You’re speaking English better than you did last year!”.

So there you have it, a definitive guide on when to use the present continuous tense in English.

Do you think you have mastered this multi-functional tense? Let us know your thoughts!