How can you use the verb form that many English coursebooks call the ‘present continuous’ or ‘present progressive’ (ie be + base verb+ing)?
The (be) + base+ing form is used where the speaker sees the event that they’re talking about to be:
- for a temporary or limited period of time
- in progress at the time of speaking but where this action is not seen as a point in time
How the speaker sees the event that they are talking about is important.* For example, in a football match you might hear these sentences on TV:
Hawthorn are having a great match here today at AFL Park.
Hodge kicks the ball to Gunston, who goals!
In both these sentences the action is in progress at the time of speaking, but in the case of “Hodge kicks..”, the speaker doesn’t see this as a period of time, but rather a ‘point’ in time. That is, maybe Franklin passes it to Hodge, who then kicks it to Gunston, and then Gunston kicks a goal. These are seen as points in time, so we use the present simple here.
So that’s why it’s important to see the event happening as being an action in progress rather than just being a point in time.
Hawthorn are having a great match – the speaker sees the football match as being in progress, and knows it’s due to end.
Let’s take a look at some common ways we use the be + base+ing verb form:
“I see what’s happening as a temporary action which is in progress right now but it’s not a point in time”
- Think of when you write postcards (you still send a postcard back home to your lovely grandmother or grandfather, I hope):
I’m sitting at this cafe in Edinburgh..
I’m writing to you from the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne…
We’re having a great time here in Belgrade..
Of course if you’re texting or Tweeting, then it’s the same principle. Sometimes we might leave out the pronoun (I, we, you, etc) and even the auxiliary (am, is, are) if it’s clear who or when we’re talking about:
Am having a great time at the party.
Just getting some drinks, will be there shortly.
“The action started before now and I expect it to have an ending in the future”
- The plans and arrangements you wrote down in your diary are a good example of this. The action started when you first organised a meeting (ie you ‘registered’ the date and time in your diary, iPad, or you just simply remembered it, and the action will end when the meeting itself is over:
I’m catching up with John tomorrow.
I’m seeing Jitka at 6 o’clock.
I’m travelling across Canada next year.
Even a ‘negative plan’ is seen as a temporary action:
I’m not getting up to much this weekend.
I’m not doing much later, why don’t you come and stop by for a drink?
“I am focussing on an action in progress”
- Trends are a good example of this.
Inflation rises when there is strong economic growth – this is a general statement about inflation, and not an action in progress.
Inflation is rising and this is creating problems for home buyers – this is something happening now and around now
Everyone’s watching the new Miley Cyrus song on Youtube.
The new Samsung smart phone is really taking off.
“I see the action not as a point in time or ‘universal time’ but something happening now that makes me react in some way”
When we refer to something which happens regularly, we use the present simple:
I always catch the bus to work.
But compare it with an action that I see as being in progress now or around now, and there’s some kind of emotional response:
She’s always taking care of me, she’s so lovely. [I feel wonderful]
My wife’s always biting her nails, it’s really annoying! [I feel annoyed]
In the textbooks this use of ‘always‘ is presented as an exception, but actually it goes along with the basic rules mentioned above (ie using ‘always’ with be + base+ing form is not with regular points in time, but rather I am commenting from the viewpoint of ‘being inside’ the moment).
“I want to emphasise that a decision I have just made is in fact already a plan”
Usually when you make a decision in the moment, you can use WILL:
“I’ll do it tomorrow, then.”
However, if you made a decision a few seconds ago and now you want to communicate that this is indeed already a plan, then you can use the be + base+ing form:
“They’re selling chocolate cakes half-price?! Alright, I’m getting some!”
“She’s in trouble? Ok, I’m going there right now!”
From my experience, I’ve heard this from Americans than from speakers in other countries. But I’ve heard myself saying this too in recent times.
“I want you to imagine it is happening now”
- Sometimes it can be good to get a friend or partner to imagine that something is happening right now, as it could help communicate your message more effectively:
“Honey, Thailand is so beautiful, let’s go there.. Just imagine.. We’re walking along the beach, hand in hand..and no one else is around..I’m sure we’ll have a great time!”
- In a similar way, we describe pictures as though the action is happening now at the moment:
“That’s Abe, my uncle, on the left. I’m not sure why he’s smiling, but it could be because he’s just seen his ex-wife..”
- And if we speculate about what we think our friends are doing now, that’s also with the present continuous form:
“What do you think John’s doing now?”
“I bet you Bill’s talking to a girl in some bar right now..”
- Likewise, when you tell a story about something that’s happened, you can use this be + base+ing form as if it’s happening now:
“I arrived late and didn’t know where to go. I’m at the door, I’m standing there for ages, well it feels like ages when finally Sandra comes along and takes me to my seat..”
To conclude, here are some nice expressions using this verb form:
15 phrases you can use today!
- I’m really looking forward to seeing you.
- Look, I’m just doing the shopping, can I call you back?
- He’s speaking with a client right now, can I take a message for you?
- I’m reading a great little book on the history of Belgrade.
- I’m studying for my finals so I won’t be able to do much else this weekend.
- What are you getting up to tonight?
- (Are) You having a good time?
- Australia are having a great year, and might even win the next World Cup.
- I never thought they’d get on, but I’ve heard that he’s seeing Julia.
- It seems like everyone is watching the big game this afternoon.
- If you’re heading out, could you get me some bread..?
- Jimmy’s working hard and making a lot of progress this term.
- You going to the concert? How about we meet up in front of Shiass Hotel?
- Things are getting better, thanks.
- Just coming now, will be there in a sec..
* Credit Michael Lewis for highlighting this.