Present tenses...So easy to get wrong

teaching tenses concept
22 Jun SAV No Comments

Teaching Present Tenses

From Andrew Rossiter, author of A Descriptive Grammar of English:


Using the present tense in any language ought to be easy. After all, it’s the first tense we learn about, and it’s the tense we most often use because we use it to talk and write about things that are happening, things that we are doing, our habits, our likes and dislikes, and a whole lot more.


But in English, there’s a problem. In Spanish you can say Bebemos zumo de naranja, in French you can say Nous buvons du jus d’orange, in German, you can say Wir trinken Orangensaft, and these expressions mean different things in different situations. But in English…… it’s not quite so simple. But it’s not too difficult either!


In English we have something that lots of other languages do not have, and it’s called “aspect”, and verbs in English have two aspects. Most verbs (though not all of them) can be used in either of these aspects: there is the simple aspect, and there is the progressive aspect.


So those Spanish, French and German examples given above can either be, in English, We drink orange juice, or else We are drinking orange juice. And it’s important to distinguish between them.


What’s the difference? Present Tense


It shouldn’t be too hard to remember. We use the present simple, as in I drink orange juice, to express permanent truths, repeated actions and sometimes instant actions: so if you said to someone I drink orange juice, you would be implying something like:


I like orange juice, (so I’ll be happy to have a glass).

I regularly drink orange juice (for example, I have some at breakfast every day).

I’m the one who drinks orange juice.


Present Continous or Present Progressive

By contrast, we use the present continuous, also called the present progressive, to express actions or conditions that are developing, ones that are in the process of taking place, or actions that are going to take place. So if you said I’m drinking orange juice, you would be implying something like:


I’m drinking orange juice right now (because I’m driving home after the party).

I’m drinking orange juice at this moment (but usually I prefer coffee).

I’m drinking orange juice today, but I’m drinking beer tomorrow.


In the last example, we are using the continuous aspect of the present tense as if it were a future tense. Sometimes we use the simple present tense to refer to future actions, but not nearly as often as we use the present continuous.


Four sentences

Here are four sentences to remember, as they each use one verb in the present simple, and one verb in the present continuous, and therefore clearly illustrate the differences between them.


My brother normally works in London, but right now he’s working in Paris.

I often walk to work, but it’s raining and I’m not walking to work today.

I go to New York every month, and I’m going there again tomorrow.

I usually take sugar in my coffee, but I’m not taking it now as I want to lose a few kilos.

Note how an adverb or adverb phrase of present time, such as right now, at this moment, today is often present in sentences where the verb needs to be in the present progressive. This is not essential, the adverb phrase of present time may just be implied, not stated.


Tip from Shelley:

Every student should personalize their four sentences to be things that are true for them. The sentences will be so easy to remember then.


Are there exceptions? You bet !

There are however a small number of English verbs that are rarely used in continuous or progressive forms. The most common of these are verbs that by their nature express something constant or permanent, verbs like know, like, understand, mean, own, etc. We can’t say I’m knowing him… or we could, but it would be pointless. I know implies a permanent condition – either you know or you don’t know, but you can’t really be knowing someone.




I understand what you mean.

I like strawberries, but I don’t like pineapples.

He owns three Rolls-Royces and a Lamborghini.


Using the progressive aspect of the verb in any of these examples would be wrong; these verbs by definition express a permanent and ongoing situation.


Modal verbs

Finally, we never use the progressive aspect with modal verbs! We say I can, I must, I would… but there is no such thing as a progressive aspect for modal verbs. Nobody ever heard “I am musting” ! Forget it! It doesn’t exist.


Descriptive Grammar of EnglishDiscover more about this, and clear explanations of all the main points of English grammar, illustrated with lots of clear examples, in the new Descriptive Grammar of English, also available in French as Nouvelle Grammaire descriptive de l’anglais contemporain. For more details and to buy as an ebook or paperback, visit Linguapress for A Descriptive Grammar of English by Andrew Rossiter.


And here are some blogs from Shelley with lesson plans on teaching present tenses:


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