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Natives & Tenses: Chapter 1. Present Simple and Present Continuous

[All information copyrighted to EnglishAdam.com]

Traditionally the Tenses (present simple, past continuous, going to, will etc) are taught using;
The Uses of the Tenses
But learning lists of uses doesn’t help students UNDERSTAND the Tenses.

Instead students should study;
The Meaning of the Tenses.

So let’s begin….

What do VERBS describe?

Verbs can describe Actions, States, Experiences, Emotions etc!

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What do TENSES ‘primarily’ describe? Or relate to?
(This is not the whole truth but for the moment it is more than adequate.)

Well they don't describe actions! We just said Verbs describe Actions! The TENSES 'primarily' describe TIME!!!!

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Present Simple v Present Continuous

So what does the PRESENT SIMPLE 'primarily' describe? (I play)

Just the PRESENT Time? Well what about... My name is Adam. I live here. Are we ONLY referring to the PRESENT?

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When we say "I live here.", or "I am hungry.", or "I know that.", were these things true before now?

Yes, maybe only a few moments of the past but... the PRESENT TENSE includes the PAST!

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And when we say "I live here.", or "I am hungry.", or "I know that.", will these things continue to be true after we speak?

Yes, maybe only a few moments of the future, but... the PRESENT TENSE includes the FUTURE!

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So what does the Present Simple 'primarily' describe?

It describes the PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE! It is telling you about an ACTION etc (the VERB) that is valid in some of the PAST, the PRESENT, and some of the FUTURE!

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So what does the Present Continuous 'primarily' describe? (I am playing)

Well again it is including the PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE!

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If I say "I am waiting for the bus." When did I start waiting?

In the PAST!

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If I say "I am waiting for the bus." When do I finish waiting?

In the FUTURE!

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In fact... don't freak out... but the present doesn't exist in terms of language! When is the 'present'? When I start this sentence? When I finish this sentence? Now? Now? Is now the present? What? Now?

Hmmmm very philosophical, so what?

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The PRESENT exists because it is the thin moving line between the PAST and the FUTURE.


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But nothing is ever ONLY in the PRESENT.

OK, ok, we get that, what's next? What is the difference between the Present Simple and the Present Continuous?

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Well what is the difference between the Simple and the Continuous? Firstly what are they?

They are called ASPECTS. They represent a way of 'viewing' the TENSE (TENSE = TIME, for now.)

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When you view something with the SIMPLE ASPECT how are you viewing it? I am happy. We have 2 children. or the PAST SIMPLE: I studied at university.

It could be considered: FACT. PERMANENT. A STATE.

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This is different than when we view the CONTINUOUS ASPECT. How do we view that? I am running. He is talking. or the PAST CONTINUOUS She was driving.

It could be considered: CHANGING. TEMPORARY. AN ACTIVITY.

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Another way to think about it is like this... What do you imagine if I say: "He gets up and he walks to the door and he opens it."?

Well we could see the three actions as 'photos'. Click. Click. Click. Image. Image. Image.

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And what would you imagine if I say: "He is getting up, and he is walking to the door, and now he is opening it."?

Perhaps we can see a video. Three short actions happening.

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Either way in those two sentences the actual ACTIONS were the same, we just have a different way of VIEWing them.

Ok, so what about some examples then?

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Imagine the following conversation:
- Hello Adam! Where are you living now?
- Oh hi John! I live in Rome now.
Why does my friend use the PRESENT CONTINUOUS, and I use the PRESENT SIMPLE?

Well, the ACTION (the VERB) is clearly the same, and the TENSE is the same (PRESENT). So we are describing the ACTION of living, that started in the PAST and will continue into the FUTURE.

But we have a different VIEW of the ACTION. My friend (who knows I have lived in many countries, and have changed many times) sees where I live as TEMPORARY. CHANGING. NOT PERMANENT.

However, I want to communicate that actually where I live is indeed PERMANENT, A STATE, NOT CHANGING, so I use the PRESENT SIMPLE to communicate this!

[Notice too how both sentences used the word 'NOW', be careful of 'magic words' that mean you should use a particular tense!]

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So why might we say "I work in London", and when might we say "I am working in London"?

Well "I work" would indicate that you normally work there, it FEELS permanent, it is UNCHANGING.

While "I am working" communicates that it is only for a short period, it is CHANGING, TEMPORARY. Perhaps you normally work in another city, or the job itself is temporary.

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So what is the difference between "I am stupid." and "I am being stupid."?

Here we can see that "I am being" describes a TEMPORARY, a CHANGING situation while "I am (stupid)" is the SIMPLE ASPECT so it describes something that is PERMANENT, like a STATE. It is common for people to say things like, "Normally I play really well but today I am playing really badly."

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We can say "She is English." but can we say "She is being English."?

Yes. Especially with an intensifier like 'so'. "She is being so English!".

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And what might it mean?

Well it doesn't focus on the fact she may well be English, but it focuses on her ACTIVITY, on how she is TEMPORARILY.

Perhaps she is drinking tea from a tea cup, perhaps she is behaving with some stereotype of being English... like staying calm, or drinking too much, or being reserved, or similar stereotypes!

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So we can use STATE VERBS with the CONTINUOUS?

Verbs like Understand, Believe, Hate. Can we say "I am understanding", "I am believing", "I am hating"?

Yes we can. But they have a very specific meaning and require very specific circumstances.

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This is very different to how I was taught at school. Give me some examples...

NOTE: These are not frequent (and often not preferred) but are possible.
"I am understanding Chinese more and more each day." (CHANGING)
"I am believing in God today just to make my girlfriend's parents happy!"(TEMPORARY)
"This film is awful, I am hating every single minute of it."(ACTIVITY)

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So when McDonald's say "I'm loving it", what are they trying to communicate?

Well, in this advertisement the phrase is trying to get us to focus on the activity of eating in McDonald's. On the singular experience that is happening. So the emotion 'love' is also TEMPORARY. It would be considered quite a modern usage of English.

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Just to understand, why do we not usually use STATE VERBS in the CONTINUOUS ASPECT?

The reason why we classify some VERBS as STATE VERBS is because they are 'binary' - in the sense that you either love me or you don't, you either understand or you don't, or you believe or you don't. You cannot half love, or half understand, or half believe NORMALLY. So we would consider them as more commonly FACTS, PERMAMENT, not as things which are TEMPORARY or CHANGING or as an ACTIVITY. So they are normally used in the SIMPLE ASPECT.

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All this leads to some more questions... For instance, don't we also use the Present Simple for FUTURE Scheduled Events, so how does that include the PAST?

We use the Present Simple for Future Actions that are scheduled, timetabled etc, because they were organized in the PAST and are of a FIXED nature (SIMPLE ASPECT).
There will be much more about this later, but for now, consider this:
My plane leaves tomorrow at 7. (Clearly the plane was organized in the past and it FEELS like a FACT, PERMANENT, because if the pilot is feeling ill tomorrow, the plane will not be cancelled. It feels FIXED.)

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And for the FUTURE we also use the Present Continuous, what do you think that communicates?

So we can and often say "I am seeing my dentist on Friday."
When was the appointment made... yes... in the PAST!
I am communicating that I have a previous arrangement.
However, the appointment can be changed. I can cancel. The dentist can cancel.
So it is NOT FIXED, it can be interrupted.
If we consider the first example of 3 Photos compared to 3 Videos. Can you interrupt a photo? No.
But you can interrupt a video. And in fact we often interrupt the CONTINUOUS ASPECT. (I was driving when a cat jumped out).
And so while yes the dentist will happen UNLESS I stop it, it feels it can be stopped. Unlike the aeroplane.

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[Sourced: EnglishAdam.com]

Test Your Knowledge!


Simple V Continuous:

Which Aspect is like a 'fixed-photo'?

Which Aspect is like a 'happening-video'?

Theory Test

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Simple is like a 'fixed-photo'

Continuous is like a 'happening-video'


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No specific notes on this question yet, sorry.



Practice Your Knowledge!

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