How to Use Continuous Tenses in English

First of all, it is important to acknowledge that the continuous form in English is often referred to as the ‘progressive’ form. Please note that that continuous and progressive forms are one and the same. 

The continuous (or progressive) forming English is formed with an auxiliary (be) plus the verb in the ‘ing’ form. Here is an example:

I am listening to music.

The continuous form exists in various time tenses, as follows:

Present continuous

The present continuous is used to signify an action that is in progress at the moment of speaking. Here are some examples:

I’m wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt.

I’m writing this article.

With this verb tense, you would expect to see time expressions such as ‘now’, ‘currently’ or ‘at the moment’.

Present continuous for future

The present continuous looks exactly the same when it is used to speak about an arrangement in the future. Here are some examples:

I’m going to Cuba for my vacation.

I’m having spaghetti for my dinner.

With this verb tense, you would expect to see time expressions such as ‘tonight’, ‘tomorrow’ or anything that represents the future.

Past continuous

Past continuous is usually used for two distinct reasons:

  1. To emphasize that a past action continued for a long time
  2. To compare two actions in the past, where one, shorter action (past simple), interrupted another, longer action (past continuous).

Here are examples of both of these uses of past continuous, with the reason (1 or 2) in brackets:

I was living in New York for 17 years. (1)

I was watching TV last night when the electricity went out. (2)

I was watching TV all night. (1)

I was living in New York when I met Jane. (2)

Future continuous

The future continuous tense is used to express an action that will be in progress at a certain point in the future. Here are some examples:

This time next year I’ll be living in Mexico.

Call me at 6pm as I’ll be driving and will have time to speak.

Other continuous forms

Continuous forms also exist in the perfect tense, such as present perfect continuous and past perfect continuous. Here are examples of both of those tenses in action;

I have been working here for 3 years. (present perfect continuous)

I had been running so I was tired when I spoke to her. (past perfect)

The present perfect continuous tense must be learnt in collaboration with the present perfect simple in order to fully understand the slight differences in meaning that exist between the two forms, but generally speaking, the continuous form is used to emphasize the duration of the action.

The same can be said for the difference between the past perfect continuous and the past perfect simple.

Stative & dynamic verbs

It is important to understand that not all verbs in English can be used in the continuous form. That is because not all verbs are ‘actions’. Some are, in fact, ‘states’. These two types of verbs can be referred to as ‘stative’ and ‘dynamic’ (or ‘active’) verbs.

The following verbs are examples of stative verbs (please note that this list is not comprehensive).

understand, know, be, love, like, hate

Because they are not actions, stative verbs cannot be used in the continuous form. For example:

I’m understanding you very well.

I understand you very well.

I’ve been knowing John for ten years.

I’ve known John for ten years.

Dual meaning verbs

However, it is important to remember that some verbs can in fact be both stative and dynamic, depending on the meaning they are trying to convey. Here is a classic example:

I’m thinking Italy is a wonderful country.

I think Italy is a wonderful country.

When ‘think’ is used to express anopinion, it is a stative verb, so cannot be used in the continuous form.

I’m thinking about what you said.

When ‘think’ means to use your mind to consider something, then it is a dynamic verb, so can be used in the continuous form if it is an action in progress.

It is always important to consider whether a verb is stative or dynamic in nature for these grammatical reasons. 

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