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Concourse 2

The present tenses

eternity now 

If you haven't followed the introductory guide to English tenses yet, please consider doing so now.


clock

Talking about now

Present tenses in English (as in most languages) are actually reasonably straightforward.  It is easier to understand the way English functions if you think of tenses being divided into two types – past and non-past.
The reason for this is that English, like many other languages, uses a variety of 'present' forms to talk about the future, because it lacks a dedicated tense form.
For more about how that is done, see the guide to four future forms.

think read Compare these examples and see if you can figure out what the difference in meaning is:
  1. Cows eat grass
  2. She always complains
  3. She's always complaining
  4. I usually stay at The Grand but this year I'm staying at The Imperial
  5. I type in my user name and then the password.  See?  Now we click on 'Proceed'
  6. I'm taking it apart again so you can see how it all fits together
  7. Johnson runs up to the crease and bowls to Smith who raps it away to the boundary for four more

Click here when you have an answer.

It is important to remember that many languages do not distinguish between progressive and instantaneous actions.  In French, for example, je lave la voiture could be translated either as I wash the car or I am washing the car.  The context will usually make things clear.  In German, Greek and many other languages, the same thing applies.

think read Now, as a test, can you complete this table?  Click on the table when you have filled in all the blank cells in your head.

present 2


three

Three important points

  1. If an event is timeless we always use the present simple unless we are expressing irritation
  2. If an event is of limited duration, we use the present progressive
  3. If an event is instantaneous we use either tense but the present progressive is more common

There's another short test on this here.


forming

Forming the tenses

With these two tenses, form is not usually a serious problem.  As with most tenses in English, it is the concept that takes some mastering.

Present Simple

Person Declarative Interrogative Negative Examples
Singular 1st subject + base form do + subject + base form subject + don't + base form I think that's sensible
Do I have your support?
I don't play tennis very well
2nd subject + base form do + subject + base form subject + don't + base form You think that's important
Do you have enough support?
You don't play very well
3rd subject + base form + s / es does + subject + base form subject + doesn't + base form He thinks I'm stupid
Does it rain a lot in the winter?
She doesn't play tennis very well
Plural 1st subject + base form do + subject + base form subject + don't + base form We think that's sensible
Do we have your support?
We don't play tennis very well
2nd subject + base form do + subject + base form subject + don't + base form You think that's important
Do you have enough support?
You don't play very well
3rd subject + base form do + subject + base form subject + don't + base form They think that's sensible
Do they have your support?
They don't play tennis very well

Things to notice:

  1. Many languages change the ending (inflect) for all persons and number so, for example, in German, we see:
    ich spiele (I play)
    du spielst
    er / sie / es spielt
    wir spielen
    ihr speilt / Sie speilen
    sie spielen
    The same applies to most European languages and some are even more complicated than German.
    English is unusual because ONLY the third person singular has any inflexion and it takes -s or -es to show number and person.
    Even above elementary level, the lack of an inflexion on the majority of forms results in learners forgetting to insert it when necessary.
  2. To form questions and negatives, many languages rely on changes to word order or simply on intonation or punctuation.
    English, however, makes use of the auxiliary verb do (called an operator) to form both questions and negatives with the simple present (and past, incidentally).
    In the third person singular, this becomes does, of course.
    At elementary level in particular, this is confusing and hard to remember so we get errors such as:
        *Go you?
        *Make you?

    etc.

Present progressive

Person Declarative Interrogative Negative Examples
Singular 1st subject + am + -ing form am + subject + -ing form subject + am + not + -ing form I'm thinking about it
Am I telling the truth?
I'm not playing very well
2nd subject + are + -ing form are + subject + -ing form subject + are + not + -ing form You are thinking clearly
Are you have enough support?
You aren't playing very well
3rd subject + is + -ing form is + subject + -ing form subject + is + not + base form She is expecting me
Is he expecting you?
It's not raining at the moment
Plural 1st subject + are + -ing form are + subject + -ing form subject + are + not + -ing form We are waiting for a bus
Are we expecting anyone?
We aren't working today
2nd subject + are + -ing form are + subject + -ing form subject + are + not + -ing form You are working too hard
Are you doing anything?
You aren't working enough
3rd subject + are + -ing form are + subject + -ing form subject + are + not + -ing form They are working too hard
Are they doing anything?
They aren't working enough

Things to notice:

  1. Because of the peculiar nature of the verb be in English, the first and second person singular forms use am and is while all the others use are.
    This doesn't usually cause problems above very elementary levels but the use of aren't I? instead of the expects amn't I? can produce error.  See the guide to question tags for more.
  2. The verb be is acting as a primary auxiliary verb in forming this tense so the negative and interrogative forms do not use the operator do, relying on word order to signal questions and on the insertion of not for negatives.  At elementary levels this can confuse and we may get errors such as
        *Do you are coming?
        *Does he is listening?

    It's not usually too serious or long-lasting.

dynamic

Stative and dynamic uses of verbs

There is a guide to stative and dynamic uses on this site and that will not all be repeated here.

For now, it is important that you understand that the stative (or state) use of a verb means that it is used to describe a state, not an action or event.
The dynamic use of a verb means that it is used to describe an action or event, not a state of affairs.

  1. verbs which are used to refer to a current state, are usually in the simple tense form
    For example:
    1. She believes in ghosts [this is her current state of mind]
    2. I feel a bit sick [my current state of health]
    3. I think that's the right train [my current belief]
    4. He understands me [a continuous state]
  2. verbs that are used to refer to a current action, are usually in the progressive form
    For example:
    1. We are waiting for the bus
    2. She is walking the dog
    3. She is taking an examination
    4. My father is doing the gardening

Verbs that are frequently used statively mostly fall into these categories:

  • Mental processes: think, believe, imagine, doubt, guess, remember etc.
  • Feelings and emotions: like, love, adore, enjoy, prefer, want, wish etc.
  • Senses: taste, feel, smell, see, hear etc.
banana

Two things to be very careful with

  1. Many languages do not make this distinction at all so learners consistently make errors, even at quite high levels, such as:
        *I am believing her
        *I am enjoying tennis
        *It is smelling of tobacco in here
  2. The distinction refers to how we use the verbs, not the verbs themselves (so it makes little sense to talk about stative and dynamic verbs).  Sometimes, the sense of the verb changes depending on how it's used.
    For example:
        I think he's coming later
    vs.
        Please be quiet, I'm thinking
        I am enjoying the music
    vs.
        I enjoy music
        You are hearing things!
    vs.
        I hear what you say.

If we overstate the distinctions and tell learners, e.g., that we never use certain verbs in the progressive, you will misinform and confuse your learners.


way

Other ways to talk about the present

Do not run away with the idea that time and tense are the same thing.  They often are, of course, and I think she's wonderful is both a present tense and refers to present time.
However, most languages have other ways to talk about the present which do not necessarily appear to be present tenses.  For example:

  • [Hearing a knock on the door] That will be the postman (This is a future form but clearly refers to this second)
  • I have lost my wallet (This is the present perfect tense used to describe a current state.  On this site, the present perfect is analysed as a present not past tense.)
  • If I were a rich man (This is subjunctive for of the verb be used to talk about unreal present states.)

It is also true the other way around: present tenses are often used in English to talk about times other than the present.  For more, see the guide to four future forms.