Read this article to learn the difference between the present simple (go, eat, drink) and the present continuous (be going, be eating, be drinking). There’s also a fun test so that you can practice what you’ve learned.
Note: The present continuous used to be known as the present progressive.
The Main Differences Explained in 60 Seconds
Use the present simple to talk about:
- things that are normally/always true (the sky is blue; ice cream melts too fast)
- habits (I play tennis every morning)
- permanent situations (I live in Switzerland)
Use the present continuous to talk about:
- actions taking place right now (“Those birds are eating all the seeds we bought!”)
- actions taking place now but not RIGHT NOW (“I’m reading this great book about wizards.”)
- temporary situations (“I’m sleeping downstairs at the moment because it’s too hot in my bedroom.”)
Okay, let’s test that!
Present Simple vs Present Continuous Exercises
My friend Derek is a model, but right now he __________________________ as a coal miner.
Permanent state: he is a model.
Temporary situation: he is working as a coal miner.
Did you know that octopuses ____________________ three hearts?
It's a scientific fact. It's always true. So use the present simple.
How often ________________________ your legs in the shower?
It's a habit (or it should be!) so it's a present simple situation.
Did you know that there was a huge internet debate about whether you should wash your legs in the shower or not? A lot of people don't do it.
What would you say to this lady?
Maybe she watches a lot of TV in general (present simple) but she's certainly watching too much right now (present continuous).
Present Simple vs Present Continuous Exercises
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If you didn’t do very well in that test, keep reading. We’re about to explain the difference IN DEPTH.
Present Simple vs Present Continuous: Fully Explained
First, I recommend you watch this video, created by my friend Darren. He wrote the rest of this article, too. Enjoy!
Many of my students ask me the following questions: “What – exactly – is the difference between present simple and present continuous tenses?” “How do you use them?” “But they seem so similar!” “But it’s confusing!” “But…”
So, I decided to write this post to try and put it to bed (there’s a nice idiom for you as well; it means to finish something definitively) once and for all.
Here’s an overview of the two tenses and how they are both used:
The Present Simple
Let’s take a closer look at the present simple tense.
Firstly, we’ll look at the structure we use to form it:
Nice and simple!
We also have some frequency words which we tend to use when using the present simple tense to help us to explain how frequently we do the event or action.
Simply put, the present simple is used to explain repeated actions or habits which we do regularly or habitually. These can be habits, actions or events:
- Do you play football often?
- I usually listen to music when I study.
- I sometimes go to the gym after work.
We also use it with verbs describing states or situations which are always true or which continue indefinitely:
- In the UK it gets dark at night.
- Eating too much food makes you gain weight.
- We breathe oxygen.
We also use it to express states or situations (thoughts or feelings) which exist in the present moment; in the moment that we are feeling at the time we are speaking:
- This coffee tastes great!
- The music is too loud!
- I am feeling very tired.
Finally, let’s have a look at some examples for expressing fixed arrangements or scheduled events (for example timetables) in the future. Again, we use the present simple tense to express this. These are things which have been pre-arranged either by you, someone else or by an organisation.
An example of these would be transport timetables, sporting events, school subjects or things like concerts. Things which have an agreed start time we use the present simple tense to express.
- Our English class always starts at 4.00pm.
- The bus usually leaves at 11.20am.
- Football matches often begin (or ‘kick off’) at 3.00pm on Saturday afternoons.
Because all of these times have been scheduled and agreed upon, we use the present simple tense to explain when they begin or finish.
All of the things above are the main reasons when we use the present simple tense in English. Notice how it’s not always just to describe things which are happening right now. So, study these carefully and start trying to adapt them into your writing or speech!
The Present Continuous
Ok, moving on swiftly, let’s have a look at the present continuous tense and the different ways in which we use it.
Just to remind you, these are the main reasons that we use the present continuous tense:
Firstly, let’s have a look at the structure we use to form it:
And the frequency words we commonly use are:
The first reason we’ll look at is to describe temporary or new habits. These are habits which are not permanent and are only going to last for a certain amount of time, due to certain circumstances. These circumstances will change in the future.
Some examples of these would be:
- I am smoking too much these days because I’m stressed.
- I am learning how to cook Asian food now.
- She is reading about the English Renaissance at the moment.
We also use it to describe temporary actions, trends or situations. When we use the present continuous tense, we use it to describe events or activities which have begun it the past, but have not yet finished at the time of speaking – and this is where people can get confused! The event or activity which you are speaking about has not yet ended, it is still happening. It doesn’t need to be happening at the very moment you are speaking, but it still remains true. Think about the following examples:
- Paul is looking for a new job at the moment.
This is something which began in the past and has not finished. If I were to tell you “I am looking for a new job at the moment”, it obviously doesn’t mean that I am doing it at the exact same time as I am speaking to you… It is simply expressing the idea that before the moment I started speaking to you (perhaps minutes, days, weeks, months or even years!) I have been looking for a new job. It is still true as I am speaking to you, so we use the present continuous. See!
Other examples include:
- I am training for a marathon these days.
- We are looking for a new house now.
We also use it to show that an activity or event is temporary and will not last forever. An example of this would be:
- She is renting a flat whilst her new flat is being built.
- Ed Sheeran is performing in London this weekend.
Some other examples explaining temporary actions, trends or situations would be:
- I am living in Rome at the moment.
- These days, clean eating is becoming very popular.
- We are working in a different office for now.
The present continuous is also used to describe actions which are happening either now, or in the immediate future. There is usually some kind of evidence to prove that it is about to happen. Think about the following examples:
- Look! It is starting to rain!
- Listen! The birds are singing!
- They are talking to clients at the moment.
With all of these examples, there is evidence for them happening, or about to happen. You would be able to feel the first drops of rain, hear the birdsong, or see or hear the people talking to clients. Therefore, we use the present continuous to express this!
If we have definite fixed plans for the near future (not timetable plans, but plans we have made ourselves), we can also use the present continuous to explain this. Examples of this could be:
- Barcelona are playing football on Saturday.
- We are flying to Madrid on Tuesday
- I am meeting up with Brian after class.
We could also just say “I am meeting Brian after class”, but it is more common in spoken English to use the phrasal verb “meet up” to express the idea that you are informally going to see someone. We use a lot of phrasal verbs to talk about such leisure time activities with friends – catch up, hang out, and chill out [with somebody or a group of people], to name a few!
If we want to talk about situations which are slowly changing over time, we also use the present continuous tense to show this gradual change. Examples of this would be:
- I am growing my hair long.
- He is losing weight.
- She is getting better at speaking Spanish.
And finally (we’re almost there, troops!), we use the present continuous to express things which irritate the speaker. In English, like in many other languages, we occasionally enjoy complaining about things (well, some people more than others – just ask my poor girlfriend)! To do this, we use the present continuous tense. We usually also use the words always or constantly to express our frustration with this. Some examples of this would be:
- They are constantly turning up to work late!
- She is always going on holiday!
- You are always ordering takeaway food!
And there you have it!
These are the main differences between the present simple and present continuous tenses. They can be confusing for people learning English and it is normal for people to confuse them and make mistakes.