Definition and Examples of the Present Progressive Tense

Present Progressive


In English grammar, the present progressive is a verb construction (made up of a present form of the verb "to be" plus a present participle) that usually conveys a sense of ongoing action at the present time. This construction is also known as the durative aspect. The present progressive is used to describe activity that is in progress right now—for example, "I am reading right now." It is distinct from the simple present ("I read"), the present perfect ("I have read"), and the present perfect progressive ("I have been reading"). Examples of the present progressive can also be found in cases where a speaker is referring to things that are planned for the future, e.g., "I am reading at the event tomorrow."

There are many reasons to use the present progressive tense, such as:

  • To refer to events that are in progress at the time of speaking or writing
  • To refer to things that are taking place or that are true around the moment of speaking or writing
  • To describe actions that are repeated or regular but are either temporary or may be judged to be temporary
  • To describe regular actions in relation to a particular time or a specified event, especially when those events interrupt something already in progress
  • To refer to gradual processes of change
  • With adverbs of indefinite frequency (such as always, constantly, continually, forever) to describe events that are regular but unplanned and often undesired

(Adapted from R. Carter and M. McCarthy, "Cambridge Grammar of English." Cambridge University Press, 2006)

The Present Progressive Is Not Passive Voice

Students of English are frequently taught to improve their prose by removing passive language, i.e., sentences where the object of an action appears as the main subject ("The pins were knocked over by the bowling ball"). Passive language introduces "be" verbs (were knocked over) that would not appear if the original sentence had been written actively ("The bowling ball knocked over the pins"). For this reason, some students learn to become wary of "be" verbs, thinking they are indicators of passive language. This is not always the case. The present progressive tense—a construction that always includes a "be" verb—should not be confused with passive voice.

Present Progressive Examples

The best way to get a sense of how the present progressive is used is to look at examples that appear in books, movies, and common speech. Take the following example, from Amy Reed's 2009 novel "Beautiful":

"I am looking at my piece of pizza. I am watching pepperoni glisten. It is my third day at the new school and I am sitting at a table next to the bathrooms. I am eating lunch with the blond girls with the pink sweaters, the girls who talk incessantly about Harvard even though we're only in the seventh grade."

Here the present progressive is used to describe a series of actions (looking, sitting, eating) that are all occurring in the same present moment. The use of this tense not only unites these actions but also provides a sense of immediacy, grounding the reader in the present.

The present progressive can also be used to describe actions that are habitual or regular or true across time:

"People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are."

This quote, from George Bernard Shaw, uses the present progressive to show that blame is "always" being assigned, from generation to generation, a symptom of human nature that will never change.

Finally, the present progressive can also be used to refer to planned actions. In her novel "Notting Hell," Rachel Johnson describes a host telling her guests what's for dinner:

"'Anyway, tonight, we are having a perfectly balanced supper of fish fingers (essential fatty fish oils), baked beans (lovely roughage) and oven chips (bursting with potato goodness).'"

Present Progressive vs. Simple Present

The present progressive tense can be confusing, especially for English learners whose native language does not use this tense. In "The Business Writer's Handbook," Gerald J. Alred provides the following example:

"I am searching for an error in the document."
[The search is occurring now and may continue.]

In contrast, the simple present tense more often relates to habitual actions:

"I search for errors in my documents."
[I regularly search for errors, but I am not necessarily searching now.]

Alred gives another example to provide a further distinction:

"I live in London."
"I am living in London."

The sense of the first sentence is that this is a relatively permanent state of affairs—there is no suggestion that the speaker is intending to leave any time soon. In the second sentence, however, the sense is that the situation is temporary; London is where the speaker happens to live at the moment, but this situation could change in the future.