The Simple Present Tense
Versus
The Present Continuous Tense

The most common ways to talk about the present are the simple present and the present continuous.

The simple present tense looks like this:
I work We work
You work
He/she/it works
They work

The only difference is the final -s for he/she/it. Remember, this is not a plural -s (like in dogs). He/she/it is the third person singular.

Here are the present tense forms for two important verbs (be and have):
BE: HAVE:
I am We are I have We have
You are
He/she/it is

They are
You have
He/she/it has

They have


The good news is you don’t have to worry about irregular verbs in the simple present. In most cases, you will only need to add the final -s for the third personal singular. However, you might need to change the spelling of the word when you add -s. Here are a two important spelling rules:
  • When the verb ends with consonant + y, you have to change the y to i and then add -es.
    • Fly flies / carry carries / copy copies
    • Enjoy enjoys (no change, because the verb ends with vowel o + y)
  • When the verb end with s, ss, ch, sh, x, or o, you have to add -es.
    • Wash washes / pass passes / relax relaxes / do does

When do we use the simple present?
  • Habits or usual activities:
    • She usually works until 5pm.
    • They take the bus to school.
  • Actions that are always true:
    • The sun rises in the east.
    • Water boils at 100° Celsius.
    • Permanent situations:
      • We live downtown.
      • He is a nurse.

To form a question in the simple present, use this order: do/does + subject + verb
  • Does she usually work until 5pm?
  • Do they take the bus to school?
  • Does the sun rise in the east?
  • Does water boil at 100° Celsius?
  • Do we live downtown?
 
  • If the sentence has be or a modal verb like can, should, will, use that verb instead of do.
    • Is he a nurse? (NOT: Does he be a nurse?)
    • Can they swim? (NOT: Do they can swim?)
To form a negative sentence in the simple present, use this order: subject + don’t/doesn’t + verb
  • She doesn’t usually work until 5pm. (doesn’t = does not)
  • They don’t take the bus to school. (don’t = do not)
  • We don’t live downtown.
  • If the sentence has be or a modal verb like can, should, will, use that verb instead of do.
    • He isn’t a nurse. (NOT: He doesn’t be a nurse.)
    • They can’t swim. (NOT: They don’t can swim.)
***


The present continuous is formed with be + verb -ing. It looks like this:
I am working We are working
You are working
He/she/it is working
They are working

When do we use the present continuous?
  • Actions that are happening right now:
    • They are working on an important project.
    • It is snowing right now.
    • The dog is sleeping on the floor.
    • You are waiting for the bus.
  • Actions that are happening around now (but not necessarily at this exact moment):
    • I am trying to learn the guitar.
    • She is studying history at the university.

To form a question in the present continuous, use this order: be + subject + verb -ing
  • Are they working on an important project?
  • Is it snowing right now?
  • Is the dog sleeping on the floor?
  • Are you waiting for the bus?
  • Is she studying history at the university?
To form a negative sentence in the present continuous, use this order: subject + be + not + verb -ing. If the subject is a pronoun (like she, you, we), there are two ways to make a contraction:
  • They aren’t (They’re not) working on an important project.
  • It isn’t (It’s not) snowing right now.
  • The dog isn’t sleeping on the floor.
  • You aren’t (You’re not) waiting for the bus.
  • She isn’t (She’s not) studying history at the university.
***

Some verbs are not used in the present continuous, because they indicate a state rather than an action. These verbs can be organized into several categories of stative verbs:
  • Mental states – think, understand, believe, doubt, know, prefer, remember, want
  • Emotional states – like, love, hate
  • Senses – see, hear, smell, taste, feel, seem, sound
  • Possession – have, own, possess
  • Communication – agree, disagree, mean, promise
  • Other states – be, need, owe, cost, depend, matter
For example:
  • I understand this grammar lesson. (NOT: I am understanding this grammar lesson.)
  • I agree with my sister. (NOT: I am agreeing with my sister.)
  • You have two cats. (NOT: You are having two cats.)
  • The bag costs $50. (NOT: The bag is costing $50.)
**In some cases, the verbs from the stative verb list can be used present continuous, but the meaning will be slightly different. The stative verb in the simple present indicates a permanent or long-lasting state. The present continuous verb indicates a temporary action happening right now.
  • Smell
    • The pizza smells delicious! (a sense)
    • Julie is smelling the pizza. (an action)
  • Think
    • I think Italian is a beautiful language. (a mental state)
    • I am thinking about my next vacation. (an action)
  • Be
    • He is friendly. (a state of his personality)
    • He is being friendly. (an action that he is doing right now)
Students often ask:
Is it okay to use contractions like don’t, isn’t and can’t? I heard that it is better to use the full forms, like do not, is not and cannot.
Answer: In spoken English, most people use contractions whenever possible. Most people also use contractions in casual written speech, even for things like work emails. Sometimes people use the full form for emphasis (I do NOT want to see him!). You may also hear the full form used in a very formal speech, such as a political speech. You may see the full form in text books and in written instructions like ‘do not enter’. If I am communicating with a specific person, I will use contractions because it sounds friendlier and more relaxed. If I am writing to a general audience (like I am doing now to you!) I will probably use the full form for clarity and formality.

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