Present progressive

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The present progressive or present continuous is an English aspectual tense of the present tense tense with the progressive aspect. For example "I am doing something".

Meaning[edit]

Like other aspectual tenses, this has multiple meanings. The primary use is for progressive actions occuring at the present time.

Name of form Explanation Example
Progressive now Action in progress at the present moment "Peter is reading a letter.
Repeated progressive Temporary situation around the present moment I'm walking to work this week.
Always doing something Annoying habit (typically used with always) Andrea's always losing her keys.
Diary future A future arrangement We're meeting in front of the station at 7.30.
Picture action description Describing an action in a picture In the picture, we can see that they are dancing.

The Durative Aspect[edit]

In fact, there is one simple 'rule' that covers all uses of this aspect. It is:

We use the durative aspect when we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation spoken of has duration, and that the duration is limited.

Let us now take a fresh look at the utterances shown at the beginning of this section:

1. Peter is in the study. He's reading a letter.

In [1], Peter's reading of the letter has duration; it started before the moment of speaking/writing and continues after it. That duration is limited; some (unspecified) time ago we know that he was not reading, and at some (also unspecified) time in the future, when he reaches the end of the letter, he will stop. This is why the durative aspect, sometimes, denotes a situation in progress at the moment of speaking.

We may contrast this with:

1a. Peter reads a lot of books.

in which there is no limitation. We may also contrast [1] with

1c. Peter passes the ball to George who.... ,

in which the passing has duration, albeit very short, indeed shorter than the time it takes to talk about it. The speaker's choice of the non-durative (unmarked) form is a choice not to emphasise duration.

2. I'm walking to work this week.

In [2], the limited duration of the activity is evident from the adverbial this week. Unless uttered by the speaker when s/he is en route to work, then the action is not taking place at the moment of speaking. Even if uttered then, the focus is on the limited duration, i.e. only in the course of one week, that the walking method of getting to work is happening.

3. He's hopping up and down.

Situations such as hopping have a very short duration. The use of the durative aspect makes the actualisation of the situation of longer duration. Of necessity this involves repetitions of the short situation, albeit in a limited time period.

Situations such as starting and stopping are of even shorter duration. Indeed, they have no duration at all. What follows the starting and precedes the stopping has duration: when a train stops, it is moving up to a point in time; then it is not moving. The use of the durative aspect extends the duration of the process to a point before or after the point in time:

6. The curtain is going up. The show is beginning

7. Get the bags down. The train is stopping.

8. The chemo-therapy did not work. I’m afraid your father is dying.

In [6], the speaker is in that limited period of time between the beginning of the rise of the curtain and the first words or actions of the actor(s). In [7], the train has begun the slowing process that will end when its movement has stopped. Similarly in [8], the father has begun the process that will end in his death.

4. Andrea's always losing her keys.

In [4]. the use of always, normally associated by virtue of its meaning with the unmarked tense, seems at first sight illogical. However, as we have seen in [3] the use of the durative aspect with a short action stresses the repetition of that action. The combination of the durative aspect and always tells us that this is a situation that actualises repeatedly, but because the duration of the whole series of losing is limited, it is not presented as a permanent state of affairs

5. We re meeting in front of the station at 7.30.

In [5], an arrangement has been made before the time of speaking. That arrangement continues (i.e. it has duration), extending from the initial time of making the arrangement to the (future) time of the arranged happening occurring.

Utterances with potentially more than one meaning[edit]

9. I am writing a book.

If we have nothing but those words and know nothing of the context in which they were uttered, we cannot know exactly what the speaker wished to convey. If, however, we know that the words were uttered in answer to one of the following questions, we know far more:

9a. You've been at that computer all day. What are you doing?

9b. Hello, George. We don't see much of you down here these days. What are you doing now you've retired?

9c. What are you doing with yourself when you finally retire next month?

Although different situations are now referred to in [9], they all share the idea of limited duration, and time-reference is clear from the context. These are not ‘separate’ meanings.

Context, Tone and Expression[edit]

Context, tone and expression can change the implied meaning of an utterance. This is not confusing for learners (almost certainly it is true of their own language/culture). It is confusing only when students are informed that a tense or aspect always (or often, or sometimes) certain ideas, or that in certain situations only one tense or aspect is possible. This is simply not true. As we have seen and will continue to see, the durative aspect expresses one underlying idea; in many situations speakers can use the aspect to express (sometimes only slightly) different ideas. We can illustrate this with:

4. Andrea's always losing her keys.

This combination of always with the durative aspect is associated by some writers with some idea of the speaker's emotional attitude, but this will be made explicit not just by the words, but by the whole context of situation and the speaker's tone. It is not true to suggest that it always expresses the speaker's irritation; with change of tone of voice and facial expression, the person uttering [4] could express irritation, resignation, amusement or a number of other feelings. Here, as is almost always the case in English, it is context and other factors that express feelings, not simply the words. The combination can just as easily be used to express pleasure, as in:

4a. He's always buying me flowers.

Stative and dynamic verbs[edit]

It is often claimed that dynamic verbs, which convey the idea of a process, occurrence or event are often used in the durative aspect. Such situations, it is claimed, have a (frequently unspecified) beginning and end, and therefore have duration, which can be limited. Even for actions that appear to have immensely short duration, the durative action can convey the idea of repetition. Stative verbs, however, which depict relatively unchanging situations, such as perception, possession, emotions, measurements, descriptions, are allegedly not normally used in the durative aspect.

It is true that the states depicted by such verbs as be, hear, know, own, love, weigh, contain, appear are not normally of limited duration. We would not normally expect to come across such utterances as:

10. *I am knowing Marketa very well

11.  ?Peter is having a new Škoda.

12 ?Gisèle is being French.

13 ?This Tokay is tasting good.

14. ?Mary is weighing 50 Kilos.

However, we need to remember two important points:

The first of these is that there are extremely few exclusively stative verbs; there are rather many verbs that are often used statively, but can also be used dynamically. For example, SMELL can, statively, mean seem by smell to be [15] or, dynamically, inhale the smell of [16]:

15. This milk smells sour.

16. Look at the cat. It’s smelling the roses.

Similarly HAVE can mean get, obtain, and BE can mean behave in a certain way. Thus, given the right context, [11], [12] and [13] now become possible, as:

11a. The sales reps have been able to choose their cars for next year. Peter is having a new Škoda and Mary is having a Ford.

12a. Richard wanted to finish off with cheese and biscuits, but Gisèle is being French. She’s serving the cheese before the dessert.

13a. Mary is weighing (out) 50 Kilos of potatoes for the voyage.

The second important point is that speakers can, if they wish, choose to stress the limited duration of a state, and utterances such as [13] become possible:

13a. I normally drink only dry wines, but this Tokay is tasting good with that rich pudding.

Such uses may be relatively rare, and it is not suggested here that they should be taught to learners at an early stage. However, teachers need to be aware that the generalisations about ‘stative’ and ‘dynamic’ verbs that appear in many course books can lead to problems later when learners hear native speakers producing utterances which the learners have been told are incorrect.

What is perhaps worse is that presenting learners with lists of verbs that ‘are never used in the continuous’ is not only misleading, but also masks the essential simplicity of the truth:

We use the durative aspect when we wish to draw attention to the fact that the situation spoken of has duration, and that the duration is limited.

References[edit]