Present Progressive Tense: Definition and Examples

Verbs that represent ongoing action in the present

Present Progressive

ThoughtCo 

In English grammar, the present progressive is a verb construction comprised 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 an activity currently in progress. For example, "I am reading right now." Notice this construction is distinct from the simple present ("I read"), the present perfect ("I have read"), and the present perfect progressive ("I have been reading"). The present progressive also occurs when a speaker is referring to things that are planned for the future, e.g, "I am reading at the event tomorrow."

Common Usage of Present Progressive

According to R. Carter and M. McCarthy, authors of "Cambridge Grammar of English," there are numerous reasons for using the present progressive tense:

"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"

Present Progressive vs. Passive Voice

Students of English are frequently told that one sure way to improve their is prose by removing "passive language," meaning sentences in which the object of an action appears as the main subject. For example:

  • The pins were knocked over by the bowling ball.

Passive language introduces "be" verbs (the pins were knocked over) that would not appear had the original sentence had been written actively:

  • The bowling ball knocked over the pins.

For this reason, some students become wary of using "be" verbs, thinking they are indicators of passive language, however, 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 review examples that appear in books, movies, and in common speech. Take the following example from "Beautiful," a 2009 novel by Amy Reed:

"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 within 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, as is the case with this quote from renowned Irish author and playwright George Bernard Shaw.

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

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 may 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

Like past progressive, present progressive tense can be confusing, especially for those learning English as a second language whose native language doesn't have an equivalent verb tense. The authors of "The Business Writer's Handbook" provide 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.]

The following example provides 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 may change in the future.

Sources

  • Carter, R.; McCarthy, M. "Cambridge Grammar of English." Cambridge University Press, 2006
  • Alred, Gerald J.; Brusaw, Charles T.; Oliu, Walter E. "The Business Writers Handbook." Twelfth Edition, MacMillan, 2019