Present vs Progressive vs Past Tense

English Grammar Rules

Present Tense

We use the present tense:

1. For facts.

  • A square has four equal sides.
  • Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark.

2. For repeated or regular actions in the present time period.

  • Flights to Buenos Aires leave every thirty minutes.
  • The bells of the town clock ring every hour.

3. For habits

  • I brush my teeth every morning.
  • He goes to the gym after work.

4. For things that are generally true in the present time period.

  • Manchester United is the best team in European football at the moment.
  • My friend lives in San Francisco.

We use the present tense when the beginning or ending of an action, event or condition is unknown or unimportant to the meaning of the sentence.


Progressive Tense

We use the present progressive tense:

1. When somebody is doing something at the moment.

  • Carla is washing her hair.
  • Christian is playing table-tennis.

2. When something is happening at the moment.

  • It is snowing at the moment.
  • The Christmas sales are happening as we speak.

3. To talk about something that is happening around the time of speaking but not necessarily at that exact moment.

  • My brother is learning how to play the violin at school.
  • Computers are becoming smaller and faster all the time.

A sentence in the Present Continuous indicates that the action, event or condition is ongoing. It is happening at this point in time and emphasizing the continuing nature of an act, event or condition.


Past Tense

The Past Tense is used:

1. To indicate that an action, event or condition has started and finished. It can be included with a time reference (for more information) or without.

  • They went to the beach.
  • Peter slept for ten hours.

2. To talk about something which was true in the past.

  • Kyoto was the capital of Japan for 1100 years.
  • Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

3. When we are talking about a particular time in the past.

  • I visited Egypt in 2000.
  • Marta spoke to her sister last night.

It can be included with a time reference (for more information) or without it.


Comparing the Tenses

A sentence in the Present Continuous indicates that the action, event or condition is ongoing. It is happening at this point in time and emphasizing the continuing nature of an act, event or condition.

A significant difference between the simple present tense and the Progressive Tense is:

We use the Simple Present Tense for things that are permanent
We use the Present Progressive for things that may change (are temporary).

Compare:

  • Simon lives in Birmingham. (Permanent)
  • Simon is living in Birmingham for six months. (Temporary)
  • It rains a lot in winter (Permanent)
  • It is raining outside (temporary)

Present I live in Chile Right now - Permanent
Progressive I am living in Chile For the moment - Temporary
Past I lived in Chile Happened in the past (not now)

Affirmative Negative Question
Present I live in Peru. I don't live in Peru. Do you live in Peru?
Progressive I'm living in Peru I'm not living in Peru. Are you living in Peru?
Past I lived in Peru. I didn't live in Peru. Did you live in Peru?



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See our grammar notes about the Present vs the Progressive Tense and the Past Tense.

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Last Updated: 29 August 2014
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