The Essential Guide to the English Present Tense
To speak about your likes and dislikes, hobbies and beliefs, you need to know one very important thing: the present tense.
Even if you can speak in present tense and read present tense, you may need to learn more about the details.
Here, you will learn everything you need to know.
- What Is the Present Tense?
- Telling Time with Present Tense
- Talking About the Present
- Summary of the Present Tense
What Is the Present Tense?
In English, a tense is how your listener knows what time you’re talking about.
A tense tells you when an action occurred.
The word even comes from an old Latin word that means time: tempus.
We use different forms of verbs—or action words—whether we’re talking about something that happened already, something that is happening now or something that will happen in the future. Using the right tense is important since it can help prevent misunderstandings.
The present tense is used for actions that are happening now, or that include what is happening now.
You will find out more on how to perfect your present tense in this guide.
To do this, we are going to explore all the different ways the present tense can be used in English.
Should You Use Simple or Continuous?
There are three main forms of the present tense: simple, continuous and perfect.
General or repeated actions use the simple form.
Actions still in progress use the continuous form.
Actions that have been completed use the perfect form.
In this article we will only talk about the simple and continuous present tense.
You need to know how to use simple and continuous very well if you want to master present tense.
The simple present tense looks like this:
- I/we/they [unchanged verb]
For example: I speak, they walk, we wish.
- He/she/it [verb with -s at the end]
For example: He speaks, she walks.
The continuous present tense looks like this:
- I am [verb with -ing at the end]
For example: I am running, I am speaking.
- He/she/it is [verb with -ing at the end]
For example: He is eating, she is smiling.
- We/they/you are [verb with -ing at the end]
For example: We are waving, they are talking, you are driving.
As is true in many cases, there are exceptions (special cases that are different) to the rules.
There are some “irregular” verbs that look different in the present tense.
To have, to be, to go, and to do are the biggest examples of irregular verbs. You will need to learn the rest, of course, but don’t worry. First, focus on learning the most common verbs.
All of this gets easier as you practice.
To start practicing, we will explore the different ways you can use the present tense.
Telling Time with Present Tense
As we mentioned before, English tenses tell you when something happens.
But these tenses alone don’t provide much information. When used alone, without any extra words to help the description, a tense can only tell you that the action happened now, happened before or has not happened yet.
Many times, you want to get information that is more specific than that.
To do that, you can add special time-related words that answer these questions:
- How long does the action happen for?
- How often does the action take place?
- When does the action happen?
Some examples of these time telling words are:
- How long: All day, for hours, since this morning
- How often: Never, always, constantly
- When: Today, last year, at 5 in the afternoon
There are many more words that help describe the time of an action. Can you think of a few more?
Talking About the Present
The present tense is all about what is happening now.
But it is also the right tense to use if you want to share your beliefs, general ideas, hobbies, things that happen more than once and a few other ideas like these.
Below you’ll learn how to talk about some of these things.
Generalizations and Beliefs
Saying something is general means it is not specific.
You are being specific if you say “I will eat fish today at 5:00.”
You can be general by saying “I eat fish.”
The second sentence describes a generalization, or something that is a big, non-specific statement. You use the simple present tense for this kind of speaking.
This way, you can share ideas, beliefs that you have, general facts or thoughts about yourself or others.
If you continue describing your love of fish to someone, you can tell them “fried fish smells delicious,” or “fish is the best food in the world.”
Notice that what you say doesn’t have to be true, it is just an idea or a belief.
Hobbies and Habits
What do you like to do in your spare time? The simple present tense can help you answer this question.
“I play the piano, and sometimes I read bad romance novels before bed.” You can be as general or specific as you want with your hobbies. Do you practice the piano for three hours every day? Do you go to sleep with your nose in a book? You can use the present tense to tell someone about that.
Hobbies are things that you do for fun. Habits, on the other hand, are things that you do sometimes without choosing to, and sometimes to make your life better (or worse).
You can have good habits: “I always wake up early and exercise before I start the day.”
You can also have bad habits: “When I’m nervous, I bite my nails. When I’m very nervous I make bad fish jokes.”
Both hobbies and habits are general descriptions of things that someone does. They might not be happening right at this moment (you’re not playing the piano and biting your nails as you read this) but they are said in the present tense because they are actions that include the current time.
How Often Things Happen
You might have noticed by now that the present tense is used to describe things that keep happening. You can also use the present tense to explain how often these things happen.
For example, if you say “He always drinks coffee in the morning,” it is not the same as saying “He never drinks coffee in the morning.” In fact, these two sentences have opposite meanings.
There are actually two time-related phrases in these sentences: (1) the words “always” and “never” explain how often your friend drinks coffee, and (2) the words “in the morning” explain when exactly this drinking happens (or doesn’t happen).
When you’re describing the frequency of an action (how often something happens), you can be very specific.
For example: “Every evening at 7:00 I study English for two hours.” This sentence tells when (7:00 in the evening), how often (every evening) and for how long (two hours) you study English.
Or you can be very general:
“Sometimes I study English.” This sentence only shows how often you study (sometimes).
What Is Happening Now
What are you doing right now? Maybe you are reading this article, drinking some tea and listening to some good music.
Anything that is happening right at this moment can be expressed with the continuous present tense.
Think of this as the way to express an action that hasn’t ended yet.
For example: “I am still waiting for this long winter to end.” If the winter was already over, this sentence would not be in the present tense! It would be in the past tense.
We keep saying that the present is something that happens now. However, you can also use it for scheduled events.
If your friend is coming to visit, you might say: “Annie’s train leaves New York today. She arrives here tomorrow at five.”
You use the present tense here because some preparation for this event has already happened. The simple present tense is usually used for events that are on a timetable or schedule or are happening very soon.
You can use the continuous present tense to say the same thing: “Annie’s train is leaving New York today. She is arriving here tomorrow at five.”
There is no difference between the two tenses in this case, so use whichever tense you’re more comfortable with!
Summary of the Present Tense
You should now have a good idea of when to use the present tense. Here’s a summary of what you learned in this article:
- Use the simple present tense to talk about…
- Generalizations / beliefs
- Hobbies / habits
- Frequency of an action
- Use the continuous present tense to talk about…
- Actions happening right now
- Use either tense to talk about…
- Actions happening in the near future
- Scheduled events
- Use time words with present tense verbs to describe…
- When an action happens
- How often it happens
- How long it happens for
How well did you understand how to use the present tense?
Now that you’ve read this guide, you can try testing yourself.
You can find some present tense exercises on the English Page website, or choose from a large selection of exercises on this German English-learning website.
But don’t just memorize grammar rules and do practice exercises to master the present tense: make sure you have lots of authentic English audio and video to help you listen to the English present tense in context.
When you read English books, listen to English podcasts and music, or watch English videos, look carefully for the present tense. Study why or how certain phrases use the present tense, paying attention to the conjugated verbs and the words that follow it.
Some language learning programs can also show when the present tense is expected to be used. FluentU, for example, uses authentic English videos so that you can learn vocabulary and sentence structure in context. Each video has interactive subtitles that provide word definitions and grammar details, so you can easily see and study instances of the present tense.
Now go out there and try your new skills in the real world!