The Complete Guide to the English Continuous Tense
What are you doing right now?
Are you reading? Are you eating? Are you drinking coffee?
No, I know what you’re doing—you’re studying your English tenses!
If you answered my first question, though, there’s a good chance that you may have answered using one of the most common and useful English tenses of all—the English present continuous.
As you can see, the present continuous is a very important tense because we use it to talk about actions that are happening or that we’re doing right now.
Knowing how to use the present continuous tense is something you must do in order to improve your English.
And the good news is, it’s pretty easy to learn.
The clue to this tense is in the name—present means “right now” and continuous means “progressing” or “to keep going.”
In fact, some people like to call the present continuous tense the present progressive tense, so don’t get worried if you hear both terms. They’re the same thing!
But, as we say in English, there’s more than meets the eye (it’s deeper or more complicated than it appears) when it comes to this tense.
So let’s take a look at how to use the English present continuous, when to use it and some tips for how to master it.
- Why It’s Important to Learn the English Present Continuous
- What Is the English Present Continuous?
- How to Form the English Present Continuous
- How to Form a Negative Using the English Present Continuous Tense
- How to Form a Question Using the English Present Continuous
- When to Use the English Present Continuous Tense
- The Other Continuous Tenses in English
- And One More Thing...
Why It’s Important to Learn the English Present Continuous
Like we already discussed, the present continuous is a very useful tense for natural-sounding conversations with English speakers. In fact, we use it daily and it has a number of different uses.
Another reason to learn it is that, if you want to know all the English tenses, the present continuous is a great place to start. Plus, you’ll need to know it in order to score high on your English tests.
Finally, as English learners, being able to switch between the tenses is an impressive and useful skill to develop.
Learning the English Present Continuous Tense? Your One-stop Guide to Nailing It
What Is the English Present Continuous?
The present continuous is one of the four present tenses in the English language.
I like to call it the “what’s happening tense” or the “what are you doing tense,” as it’s a fun and simple way to get familiar with it.
Imagine you’re at home and your friend calls you.
You answer the phone.
Friend: “What’s happening?”
You: “Not much, I’m eating my lunch.“
You might not have known it, but you responded in the present continuous tense. This is because you’re describing an action that you’re doing right now.
It’s important to note that the action hasn’t finished yet. Instead, it’s continuing at the time of the discussion.
If, for example, you answer with “Not much, I finished my lunch 10 minutes ago,” then you’d be answering in the past tense since the action is finished.
This is an important point and a key difference between the tenses.
Listen for it in popular English music, and you will start to pick up on the differences in a more natural way.
How to Form the English Present Continuous
It’s easy to form the present continuous tense. You simply need the correct conjugation of the verb to be:
- I am
- You are
- We are
- They are
- He/she/it is
Next, you need a present participle form of a verb to follow it.
I know that can sound scary, but it isn’t. An easier way to remember the present participle is to simply refer to it as an -ing verb.
It’s when we take the base form of a verb and add the suffix “-ing.”
And remember: if the verb ends with an -e, you need to remove it before adding “-ing.”
to drive → driving
If a short verb (one syllable) ends with a vowel, then the consonant should double before adding our -ing
to dig → digging
to run → running
Now, let’s take a look at how we actually form the present continuous.
We can do this simply by using the following pattern:
Subject + to be (conjugated) + -ing verb
She is driving. / She’s driving.
He is cooking dinner in the kitchen. / He’s cooking dinner in the kitchen.
The lady is dancing.
We are walking to school. / We’re walking to school.
I am writing my thesis. / I’m writing my thesis.
How to Use the English Present Continuous to Talk About Ongoing Actions
Something important to know about the English present continuous tense is that the action you’re describing can be ongoing, which means it lasts for a long time.
Take the very last example sentence, for example—”I’m writing my thesis.”
Writing a thesis doesn’t start and end on the same day. Instead, writing a thesis is an ongoing action that takes time. However, you can still use the present continuous tense to talk about it.
Let’s look at a few more examples of this:
I am studying law. / I’m studying law.
She is working in China. / She’s working in China.
They are living in their beach house for the summer. / They’re living in their beach house for the summer.
These examples show that the action could be occurring for years!
You might not be reading your law school textbooks right now, but “studying law” is still ongoing and unfinished. This means that since you haven’t earned your degree yet, you’re still studying law. So it’s correct to use the present continuous tense.
This is a common feature of the continuous tenses in the English language.
Contractions and the English Present Continuous
By now you’re probably asking yourself:
“I noticed that contractions are used for the subjects in the example sentences. Is this common?”
Contractions are commonly used in the present continuous form. Actually, they’re common to use in every continuous tense in English!
Without using contractions, your sentence might sound strange or rude. It’s kind of like you’re trying to clarify your point.
Since this tense is common for a general conversation, saying a sentence like “I am studying law” can sound very formal and too strong. Saying “I’m studying law” sounds a lot better!
How to Form a Negative Using the English Present Continuous Tense
Forming a negative in the present continuous is very simple. All you need to do is add the adverb not after the contraction of the subject and “to be.”
To make it even easier, follow this simple pattern:
Subject + to be (conjugated) + not + -ing verb
I am not running in the rain. / I’m not running in the rain.
Remember that wherever possible, contractions should be used. If you need to refresh your memory on how to form contractions, click here.
Now, let’s take a look at a few more examples that use contractions:
I’m not studying law.
He’s not swimming fast enough to win the race!
She isn’t coming to the meeting.
It isn’t raining.
How to Form a Question Using the English Present Continuous
To form a question in the present continuous tense, you just need to place the conjugated “to be” verb in front of the subject. These are the present simple forms of the root verb “to be.”
Are you studying law?
Is the train running late?
Am I speaking too fast?
As you might notice, this form is a great way to pose a polite question. To form a specific question related to time, place or meaning, just add a question word at the beginning of the sentence.
These are sometimes referred to as WH-words or WH-questions. They’re the question words when, where, why, how and what.
Let’s look at some examples:
Where are you studying law?
Why is the train running late?
What are you cooking for dinner?
Who are you dancing with?
When to Use the English Present Continuous Tense
There are a couple of different ways that the present continuous tense can be used that may at first seem opposite or contradictory to what we just learned.
But that’s also why it’s important to get a full and complete grasp of the tense!
Let’s take a look at some now.
Talking About an Action That’s Going to Happen in the Future
Yes, the present continuous tense is used to talk about an action that’s going to take place in the future sometimes.
I know this may seem confusing. So, there are a few tips to help you know if you’ll need to use the present continuous in this way.
It’s also quite a specific situation. There are some “indicators” that’ll help you decide if you must use the tense to talk about the future, which makes it a bit easier.
The present continuous is used to talk about something happening in the future that seems to be definite, concrete and organized. It’s almost like a legal idea, as there must be some form of the intention behind it.
Take a look at the two sentences below:
I’m moving to Australia tomorrow.
I’m going to go to Australia.
The second sentence doesn’t provide as much detail. It doesn’t tell us when that person is going to move to Australia. It also doesn’t use the present continuous structure.
In the first example, the person says that they will move to Australia tomorrow. Therefore, there’s intention behind it, and going to Australia is something that the person has planned and organized.
Let’s take a look at another sentence like this:
She’s meeting with her doctor on Friday morning.
As you can see, these two sentences are very specific and talk about a moment in time. It shows us that the event (going to the doctor or moving to Australia) is planned and organized.
Describing Behavior and Habits
The present continuous tense is sometimes used in a negative way to describe behavior that you might consider annoying.
He’s always chewing with his mouth open!
They’re always arriving late, I can’t believe it.
She’s constantly complaining, I can’t deal with it!
He’s always forgetting his car keys!
When used like this, the sentence usually needs an adverb. Adverbs are words like “always” and “constantly” to show that the action happens frequently. By using the present continuous tense like this, the actions are portrayed as annoying or bad habits.
But you can also use it to compare.
You’re swimming a lot better than you were last year.
Or, an ongoing changing situation that doesn’t necessarily have to be negative:
She’s growing so quickly, I can’t believe it!
The Other Continuous Tenses in English
Don’t stop here! Next step is to master the other continuous tenses in English, they’re every bit as easy.
How are you feeling now?
The present continuous doesn’t have to be scary. It’s a simple, useful and multifunctional tense that’s guaranteed to improve your English!
Use the continuous tense in conversations, and look out for it in English books, podcasts and movies. You can also use a program like FluentU to help you understand how to use tenses in context.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Once you’ve nailed it, you’ll be speaking more naturally, describing ongoing situations and talking about the future. And best of all, you’ll be on your way to covering all of the English tenses!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.