What's the Difference Between Present Participles and Present Progressives?

Questions and Answers About English Grammar

boy singing
When we say "Carl is singing at the singing competition," the first singing is part of the present progressive (is singing) while the second singing is a present participle that modifies the noun competition. (Cultura RM Exclusive/Phil Fisk/Getty Images)

Both the present participle form of a verb and the present progressive aspect look alike, but there's an important difference between them. Let's see what that difference is.

Though both end in -ing, the present participle form of a verb isn't the same as the present progressive aspect. These terms can be a little confusing, but the verb forms themselves should be familiar: we use them all the time in speaking and writing.

What They Are

What is a present participle?
The present participle is a verb form (made by adding -ing to the base) that can do the job of an adjective: "Carl signed up for the singing competition." (Note that singing modifies the noun competition.) 

But wait, as the infomercials say: there's more that it can do!

What is the present progressive aspect?
The present progressive aspect is a verb construction made up of a present form of the verb "to be" plus . . . a present participle: "Carl is singing his heart out." (Note that the present tense is signaled by is, not by the participle singing.) The progressive usually conveys a sense of ongoing action (and is sometimes called the present continuous).

What They Do

A present participle by itself can't serve as the main verb of a sentence. For instance, "Sadie, tapping her cane to the music" is incomplete. In this example, "tapping" begins a present participial phrase that tells us something about the noun "Sadie." One way to make this word group into a sentence is by adding a subject (I) and a predicate (remember): "I remember Sadie, tapping her cane to the music." But there's another way to turn this fragment into a complete sentence.

A verb in the present progressive aspect may itself serve as the predicate of a sentence: "Sadie is tapping her cane to the music." As we've seen, the present progressive is used for continuing activities--that is, for actions taking place at the moment of speaking and for actions that go on for a short period of time.

A Quick Review

We could easily have a sentence that contains both a present participial phrase ("tapping her cane to the music") and a main verb in the present progressive ("is singing"):

Tapping her cane to the music, Sadie is singing loudly and out of key.

In this sentence, tapping is a present participle (unaccompanied by a form of the verb "to be") while is singing (a form of the verb "to be" plus a present participle) serves as the main verb in the present progressive aspect.

A Little Practice

For each of the sentences below, decide if the -ing word is simply a present participle serving as an adjective or part of a present progressive construction. You'll find the answers at the end of the exercise.

  1. The clown is crying.
  2. The children laugh at the crying clown.
  3. A flying squirrel landed on the porch rail.
  4. Stray dogs are barking tonight, and the Rowland boy is lighting firecrackers.
  5. Our neighbors' barking dog keeps us awake at night. 
  6. The Hendersons are moving to the mountains of Washington state.
  7. "Happiness," Kinky said, "is a moving target: we're not happy until you're not happy."

Answers: 1. present progressive (is crying); 2. present participle (crying clown); 3. present participle (flying squirrel); 4.

present progressive (are barking and is lighting); 5. present participle (barking dog); 6. present progressive (are moving); 7. present participle (moving target)