What is Progressive Aspect

Definition and Examples

George Harrison
George Harrison.


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In English grammar, progressive aspect refers to a verb phrase made with a form of be plus -ing that indicates an action or condition continuing in the present, past, or future. A verb in the progressive aspect (also known as the continuous form) usually describes something that takes place during a limited time period.

According to Geoffrey Leech et al., the English progressive "has developed a rather complex meaning, or set of meanings, by comparison with progressive constructions in other languages" (Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study, 2012)

Examples of Progressive Forms

"A progressive form does not simply show the time of an event. It also shows how the speaker sees the event--generally as ongoing and temporary rather than completed or permanent. (Because of this, grammars often talk about 'progressive aspect' rather than 'progressive tenses.')"
(Michael Swan, Practical English Usage. Oxford University Press, 1995)

  • Present Progressive
    "History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken."
    (James Joyce)
  • Past Progressive
    "We were talking about the space between us all
    And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion."
    (George Harrison, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps")
  • Future Progressive
    "I'll be seeing you
    In all the old familiar places
    That this heart of mine embraces
    All day through."
    (Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal, "I'll Be Seeing You")
  • Present Perfect Progressive
    "Well I've been out walking
    I don't do that much talking these days."
    (Jackson Browne, "These Days")
  • Past Perfect Progressive
    "‘You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,’ said the Lion.”
    (C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair)
  • Future Perfect Progressive
    "Well, dearest, I know you will have been thinking a good deal about me today and wondering how I have faired."​
    (Mowbray Meades, letter to his wife, 1917)

Getting More Progressive

"English has been getting more progressive over time--that is, the progressive form of the verb has steadily increased in use. (The progressive form is the –ing form that indicates something is continuous or ongoing: 'They are speaking' vs. 'They speak.') This change started hundreds of years ago, but in each subsequent era, the form has grown into parts of the grammar it hadn't had much to do with in previous eras. For example, at least in British English, its use in the passive ('It is being held' rather than 'It is held') and with modal verbs like should, would, and might ('I should be going' rather than 'I should go') has grown dramatically. There is also an increase of be in the progressive form with adjectives ('I'm being serious' vs. 'I'm serious')."​​ (Arika Okrent, "Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They're Happening." The Week, June 27, 2013)