Present Simple vs. Present Continuous – Key Differences

Aug 11, 2021

The difference between present simple and present continuous tense is one of the most common confusions among students. Even though both tenses are used to describe actions happening in the present, they have many other uses that make them different.

Knowing when to use and how to form each tense is important for every English learner. So, here are the key differences between these two basic tenses in the English language that will help you use them correctly.

Present Simple vs. Present Continuous - Uses

These are two of the most commonly used tenses in the English language, so it’s important to know when to use them.

Present Simple Uses

1. When something is always or generally true, or for facts.

Ex. We need air to breathe.
Ex. Camels live in deserts.

2. When we talk about a situation we think is probably permanent.

Ex. They live in Ohio.
Ex. What does she work?

3. When we talk about things someone does regularly or for habits. In this case, we usually use words such as always, often, sometimes, and other adverbs of frequency.

Ex. Do you drink coffee?
Ex. Sometimes I play football.

4. When we talk about fixed plans in the future or events that are part of different timetables fixed by organizations.

Ex. The train leaves at nine tonight.
Ex. What time does the school start tomorrow?

5. When we talk about the future after “as soon as”, “until”, “before”, “after”, and similar words.

Ex. I’ll be here until tomorrow.
Ex. I’ll leave as soon as she returns home.

6. When we talk about events in films, plays, and books.

Ex. At the end of the play, the protagonist dies.
Ex. The kids play in the yard in the beginning of the book.

7. When we use the zero and first conditionals.

Ex. If you put ice in water, it melts.
Ex. If it doesn’t rain, we’ll come.

Present Continuous Uses

1. When we talk about things that are happening right now.

Ex. She is walking towards me.
Ex. Are you listening to me?

2. When something is happening now and hasn’t finished.

Ex. It is raining.
Ex. The kids are sleeping.

3. When something is happening in the present but not necessarily at the moment of speaking.

Ex. She is studying a lot for her English exam.
Ex. I’m watching a great serial. (not necessarily right now but in general)

4. When we discuss temporary situations.

Ex. Molly is living in New York for a few months. (Otherwise, she lives in Texas.)
Ex.She is working as a waitress this summer.

5. When we discuss situations or events that are slowly changing.

Ex. Steve is becoming my favorite teacher.
Ex. She is getting ready for school.

6. When we discuss new or temporary habits.

Ex. I’m eating a lot these days because I study for the exams.
Ex. I’m reading a lot this summer.

7. When we talk about annoying habits (typically with “always”)

Ex. My friend is always taking selfies when we’re out.
Ex. My brother is always throwing his dirty socks on the floor.

8. When we discuss fixed future plans.

Ex. The teacher is giving us an exam tomorrow.
Ex. I’m meeting her after lunch.

9. When we discuss people in photos or pictures.

Ex. In this photo, I’m walking on the beach.

Comparing Uses of Present Simple and Present Continuous

Ex. I like to eat apples. – Present Simple (general fact)

What are you eating now? – Present Continuous (an action happening now)

Ex. Bella lives in London. – Present Simple (permanent situation)

Bella is living in Boston for now. – Present Continuous (temporary situation)

Words Often Used with the Present Simple (Not with the Present Continuous)

Present Simple Tense

Knowing that the following words aren’t typically used in the present continuous but in the present simple will help you choose the right tense.

  • Mental process verbs – understand, suppose, think, know

Ex. I think I love you. (Not: I’m thinking I love you.)

  • Frequency adverbs – often, always, seldom, frequently, rarely, occasionally, hardly ever

Ex. They rarely ask for help. (Not: They are rarely asking for help.)

  • Verbs expressing feelings – like, love, adore, admire, respect, hate, detest

Ex. I respect my teacher a lot. (Not: I’m respecting my teacher a lot.)

  • Verbs describing the senses – hear, taste, smell

Ex. I smell her perfume. (Not: I’m smelling her perfume.)

  • Speech act verbs – swear, promise

Ex. I promise to love you every day. (Not: I’m promising to love you every day.)

  • Verbs describing permanent qualities – contain, consist, last

Ex. This book consists of 5 sections. (Not: This book is consisting of 5 sections.)

Words or Phrases Used with the Present Continuous (Not with the Present Simple)

The following words often go hand in hand with the present continuous:

  • Time expressions – now, at the moment, right now, these days, nowadays

Ex. These days, students are asking about their prom. (Not: These days, students ask about their prom.)

  • Exclamatory phrases – Listen!, Excuse me!, Hurry up!, Look!, Hey!

Ex. Hey! Are you listening to me? (Not: Hey! Do you listen to me?)

Present Simple vs. Present Continuous – How to Form Each Tense

Knowing when to use each tense is not enough to use them correctly. You also need to know how to form them.

Present Simple – How to Make It

To form the Present Simple, you add “s” or “es” to the end of the verb when talking about third-person singular or she/he/it. When talking about “they”, “we”, “you”, or “I”, the verb remains the same.

Ex. She learns English.

The students (they) learn English.

Ex. On Sundays, we go to church.

On Sundays, he goes to church.

To form negatives with the present simple, you use “do/does” plus “not” (or the contractions don’t/doesn’t) after the subject (I, you, they, etc.) plus the root form of the verb. You use “does not/doesn’t” only with third-person singular or he/she/it.

Ex. I don’t know you.

She doesn’t know you.

To form a question with present simple, you use do/does, plus the subject, plus the root for of the verb.

Ex. Do we know her?

Does he know her?

Present Continuous – How to Make It

How Present Continuous make

To form the present continuous, you use the verb “to be” in the right form (am, is, are or the contractions ‘m, ‘s, ‘re) plus the “ing” form of the verb.

Ex. She is eating breakfast.

I’m eating breakfast.

To form negatives with the present continuous, you just add “not” after the right form of the verb “to be”.

Ex. I’m not studying English right now.

To form questions with the present simple, you start with the right form of the verb “to be”, follow with the subject, and then with the “ing” form of the main verb.

Ex. Is she listening to you?
Ex. Are you coming with us?

To Sum Up

Present simple and present continuous tense are two of the most commonly used tenses in the English language, so it’s crucial that you know how to use and form them properly. Understanding their differences will help you improve your English.


Image credit:

Milena Popova

Milena is an ESL teacher with over 8 years of experience in providing original content. She enjoys writing educational articles that may help English language learners understand some aspects of English.

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