The first verb tenses an English student learns are the present simple and the present continuous, partly because they are the most simple but also because they are the most commonly used. Here is a guide on how to create and use both tenses.
The Present Simple
We use the present simple tense for the following situations:
- to describe permanent or long-term facts. For example: Lions live in Africa.
- to describe habits and routines. For example: I usually get up at 7am.
- to express general preferences and opinions. For example: She loves music.
- to refer to the schedule of transport or events. For example, Our flight leaves at 12:30.
To make sentences with the present simple there are only two forms for almost all verbs. For example, for the verb ‘to play’ in the present simple affirmative form is as follows:
As you can see, we simply use the base form of the verb ‘play’ for all the subjects, except the third person singular, where we add -s. For example:
They work here.
She likes tennis.
You have a beautiful car.
We want a sandwich.
I live in the city center.
The conference starts tomorrow.
To create negative sentences we add ‘don’t’ for I/you/we/they and ‘doesn’t’ for he/she/it:
We don’t have time.
They don’t come from this city.
He doesn’t often play football.
You don’t speak Chinese.
I don’t like tea.
You and your brother don’t eat fish.
And to make questions we add ‘do’ for I/you/we/they and ‘does’ for he/she/it:
Do we need to make a reservation?
Do you think it’s a good idea?
Does it rain much here?
Do I have time for a coffee?
Do they want something to eat?
The exception to this structure is the verb ‘to be’ which is irregular and forms negatives and questions in a different way. To make negatives in the verb ‘to be’ we add ‘not’, and to make questions we invert the subject and verb:
Here are some examples:
Are you tired?
We’re not hungry.
Is he ready?
They’re from Rome.
You’re not a student, are you?
It’s really hot here today.
The Third Person Singular
Having such a simple structure for most subjects can make you think it’s very easy to use the present simple, and it is in many ways. But it’s really important to remember the one subject that is different because forgetting to use the -s for verbs in the third person singular is very noticeable. So it’s a really good idea to focus on learning and practicing it to be a good English speaker.
There are three ways to add -s to verbs in the present simple, according to the spelling of the verb:
He studies very hard.
My Dad fixes things in our home.
She does ballet.
Your house looks beautiful.
The weather always gets worse in November.
He doesn’t want to go out.
She doesn’t need any more clothes.
The Present Continuous
The present continuous (also known as the Present Progressive) is used in these situations:
- to describe an action in progress
- to describe a short-term or temporary situation
To create the present continuous we use the verb ‘to be’ and the gerund (or -ing form) of the main verb. The affirmative form of the verb ‘to play’ is as follows:
To create the negative form we simply change the verb ‘to be’ into the negative:
To make questions with the present continuous we invert the subject and the the verb ‘to be’.
Here are some examples:
We’re going out. See you later.
Ted’s working in the garden.
What are the children doing?
They’re doing their homework.
How are you feeling?
The machine isn’t working properly.
Why are you wearing a sweater? It’s hot in here.
Giulia is staying with her sister at the moment.
There are some verbs that we never use in the present continuous tense because they are states and cannot have a progressive form. These verbs are preference and state verbs, such as: know, have (for possession), like, love, prefer, hate, want, believe, own, cost. For these and similar verbs, we use the simple tenses.
The Present Continuous for the Future
When we talk about a fixed event in the future we often use the present continuous. It’s particularly common when you refer to appointments in your agenda, For example:
I’m going to the dentist on Tuesday at 10am.
We’re meeting my sister for lunch today.
He’s having a haircut this afternoon.
What time are you leaving?
They’re taking the seven o’clock train.
You’re looking after the kids tonight.
Present Simple or Present Continuous?
When you are not sure whether to use the present simple or the present continuous, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it a long-term situation? If so, use the present simple
- Is it a state verb? (For example, like) If so, use the present simple
- Is it an action verb happening in this moment? If so, use the present continuous
- Is it an action verb that is a temporary situation? If so, use the present continuous
- Is it a fixed plan in the future? If so, use the present continuous
As you can see, we use these two tenses in many daily situations so they’re really useful to learn as well as you can. Try to practice them a lot until they become natural, and pay special attention to the third person singular form because it will really make a difference in your accuracy in conversation.