Mixed Present Tenses

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In today’s lesson, we’re going to focus on the simple present and present continuous (also called the “present progressive”) and a few more advanced details involved in the way these tenses are used.

Basic Difference: Simple Present & Present Continuous

The simple present is used for actions or states that are generally true, or for events that happen regularly:

  • drive home from work every day. I usually listen to music in the car.

The present continuous is used for actions that are happening NOW, in the moment of speaking:

  • (on your cell phone in the car): I‘m driving home from work right now. I‘m listening to a great new CD at the moment.

drive-music

Sometimes the present continuous is used to emphasize a situation that is temporary:

  • work for a cosmetics company. This month I’m working on our new line of nail polish.
  • My brother lives in Chicago. At the moment he’s between apartments, so he‘s living with a friend.

“Signal words” that are typically used with the simple present include adverbs of frequency, such as:

  • never, sometimes, usually, generally, occasionally, seldom, rarely, hardly ever, always,*
  • every day/week/month/year, once/twice a day/week/month/year

*There is an exception, which you will learn in the “Special Cases” part of this lesson

“Signal words” that are typically used with the present continuous include:

  • now, right now, at the moment, currently
  • today, this week/month/year

Put it into practice!

What’s one thing that you…

  • always do?
  • usually do?
  • sometimes do?
  • rarely do?
  • never do?

When NOT to Use Present Continuous

There are two situations in which we tend NOT to use the present continuous.

1. With verbs that describe states of existence, not actions

  • bikeThis bike costs $150.
    This bike is costing $150.
  • He currently owns a boat.
    He currently is owning a boat.
  • We used to drink coffee, but now we prefer tea.
    We used to drink coffee, but now we are preferring tea.

These verbs are often called “state verbs” or “stative verbs” and they tend to include…

  • Verbs of opinion:
    know, believe, understand, recognize, prefer, agree/disagree, approve/disapprove, suppose, suspect
  • Verbs of possession:
    have, own, belong, possess, include, owe
  • Verbs involving perception of the senses:
    hear, smell, see, feel, appear, seem, resemble
  • Verbs of emotion:
    love, hate, like, want, need, desire, wish
  • Verbs that describe intrinsic states/qualities:
    weigh, contain, consist, measure, cost, exist, depend, deserve, involve, matter

For example sentences with these verbs, please see this lesson on Stative & Dynamic Verbs.

2. With verbs that perform the action they refer to

Blue-Speech-BubbleThese are usually verbs that make some sort of statement:

  • admit that I was wrong.
  • No. Absolutely not. I refuse to let you copy my work.
  • We promise we’ll do a good job.

Other examples include acknowledge, advise, confess, congratulate, declare, deny, forbid, guarantee, order, permit, predict, remind, request, thank.

However, in casual spoken English, some of these verbs are indeed used in the present continuous form:

  • OK, OK, you win. I’m admitting defeat.
  • I’m begging you to forgive me.
  • I’m warning you, this class is not for beginners.

Verbs with Different Meanings/Uses in Simple Present & Present Continuous

1. Verbs with different meanings

Some verbs have two meanings – one of which can be used in the present continuous, and the other of which cannot.

One good example is the verb have. When have is used for possession, it cannot be continuous. But when used for eating meals (having lunch) or experiencing things (having fun), it can be continuous:

  • I didn’t use to have any pets, but now I have a cat.
    I’m having a cat.
  • I‘m having dinner right now, could I call you back later?
  • We‘re having a great time on vacation!
  • He‘s having trouble finishing the project.

Here are a few other verbs that follow this pattern:

  • This blue stone looks like a sapphire.
    (looks = appearance)
  • She‘s looking at the pictures in the album.
    (looking = directing her eyes at something)
  • The boss feels that the staff doesn’t respect him.
    (feels = has an impression/opinion)
  • I was sick for a couple days, but now I‘m feeling better.
    (feeling = physical health)
  • These cookies taste very sugary.
    (taste = the quality possessed by the cookies)
  • Now the chef is tasting the sauce to see if it needs more seasoning.
    (tasting = the action of eating the food to test its taste)

2. Mental state verbs that can be finished or in progress

With some verbs that describe a mental state, we can use the present simple to imply that we are sure about something, and the present continuous to imply that we are still considering it (we are not yet sure):

  • thought_cloud_clip_art_16280think that taking an intensive English course is the best way to learn.
    (= my opinion on this is formed; I am sure of my belief)
  • I‘m thinking about taking a trip around the world.
    (= I’m still in the process of considering it; I am not sure if I will go or not)
  • realize that this is important to you.
    (= I am sure that this is important to you)
  • Nowadays I‘m realizing how much I still have left to learn!
    (= my realization of this fact is currently in progress)
  • regret dropping out of school before finishing my degree.
    (= I am sure that dropping out of school was bad)
  • It just started raining. Now I’m regretting leaving my umbrella at home.
    (= the regret is forming in this moment)
  • We consider this product to be the best value for the price.
    (= we have formed the opinion and we are sure)
  • We‘re considering buying a motorcycle… do you think we should?
    (= we are still in the process of deciding whether or not to buy it)

However, the “mental state verbs” believe, conclude, know, and prefer are never used in the present continuous.

Special Situations

1. Using the present, not the past, in informal stories & jokes

When telling a story to friends, native speakers sometimes tell it using present tenses, not past tenses – as if the story were happening at that moment.

“Yesterday, I‘m walking to class, drinking some coffee and carrying a ton of books… when suddenly this dog runs up to me and starts jumping up and trying to lick my face. So I’m trying to fend off this dog, and the owner is nowhere to be found. Then I lose my balance and fall over, and my books and papers go flying everywhere. That’s when a guy jogging in the park sees what’s going on and comes to my rescue, and he manages to scare off the overly friendly dog…”

Since these events happened yesterday, you could also say “Yesterday I was walking to class… when suddenly this dog ran up to me and started jumping up…” However, telling the story in the present is simply a way to make the story seem more “alive” and help the listeners experience the action.

2. Using the present, not the past, when describing events in books or movies

Similarly to the example above, when describing events in books or movies, we often use present tenses:

  • Movies-iconIn the beginning of the movie, terrorists kidnap the president’s daughter.
  • The main character discovers something surprising about his family in Chapter 3.
  • At the end of the film, the father and son finally forgive each other.

3. Using the present, not the past, in newspaper headlines

Newspaper.svgIn newspaper headlines, publishers often use the present tense rather than the past tense to describe events that have happened in the recent past. This makes them seem more “immediate,” as if the reader is in the middle of the action:

  • Company Opens New HQ in China
  • Deadly Factory Accident Kills 3, Injures 8
  • Veteran Tennis Champion Loses to 19-Year-Old Star
  • Cancer Study Reveals Surprising Results

Put it into practice!

Think about three recent events that have happened in your city / country. Write three “newspaper headlines” using the present simple tense.

4. Using the present continuous when talking about an EXTREMELY frequent action

The beginning of this lesson said that we use the simple present for regular/frequent events, but that there is an exception involving the word “always.”

  • always take the train to work.
  • He always goes to the gym on Saturdays.
  • They always sit in the front of the classroom.

When someone does an action so frequently that it is almost like a continuous characteristic of that person, we can use the present continuous with always, continually, or constantly. This structure is often used when we are annoyed with the frequent action:

  • annoyed smileyMy sister‘s constantly asking me for money. It’s such a pain!
  • They‘re always changing their minds; they can’t commit to anything.
  • He has such a negative attitude. He‘s continually complaining about his job, his wife, his kids, his car, his neighborhood…

Put it into practice!

Think about someone you know who has an annoying habit, and make a sentence using the present continuous:

  • He’s / She’s – always / continually / constantly – ________ing…

Summary:

  • Use the simple present for things that are generally true or happen regularly
  • Use the present continuous for actions that are happening now, or are temporary
  • Do not use the present continuous with “state verbs” (ex. know, contain, belong)
  • Do not use the present continuous with verbs that perform the action they refer to (ex. admit, confess, refuse)
  • Some verbs can be both state verbs and action verbs
  • With some “mental state verbs” (think, realize, consider, regret) we can use them in present simple for certainty and present continuous if we are not yet sure.
  • The simple present is often used in stories & newspaper headlines
  • The present continuous is often used with EXTREMELY frequent actions, with always / continually / constantly

You’ve finished Lesson 1! Now take the quiz and do the practice exercises to help strengthen your understanding and use of the present tenses.

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This is a free sample lesson from the
Advanced English Grammar Course

45 Lessons – $45

Secure payment – Credit Card, Debit Card, or PayPal

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