English Grammar

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CHAPTER 3.  THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS

1. Uses of the present continuous

In English, the Present Continuous tense is usually used to express continuing, ongoing actions which are taking place at the moment of speaking or writing. In the examples given below, the verbs in the Present Continuous tense are underlined.
e.g. Right now I am cooking supper.
      At the moment the plane is flying over the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Present Continuous tense is often used in conversation.
e.g. "What are you doing?"
      "I am working on my English assignment."

Occasionally, the Present Continuous tense is used to refer to a future event.
e.g. We are leaving tomorrow.

 

2. Formation of the present continuous

The Present Continuous tense of any verb is formed from the Simple Present of the auxiliary to be, followed by what is generally referred to as the present participle of the verb.

The present participle of a verb is formed by adding ing to the bare infinitive. For instance, the present participle of the verb to work is working.

Thus, the Present Continuous tense of the verb to work is conjugated as follows:

 I am working
 you are working
 he is working
 she is working
 it is working
 we are working
 they are working

See Exercise 1.

 

3. Spelling rules for the formation of the present participle

Some verbs change their spelling when the ending ing is added to form the present participle.

a. Verbs ending in a silent e
When a verb ends in a silent e, the silent e is dropped before the ending ing is added. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to close  closing
  to dine  dining
  to leave  leaving
  to move  moving

However, when a verb ends in an e which is not silent, the final e is not dropped before the ending ing is added. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to be  being
  to see  seeing

b. Verbs ending in ie
When a verb ends in ie, the ie is changed to y before the ending ing is added. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to die  dying
  to lie  lying

When a verb ends in y, no change is made before the ending is added. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to fly  flying
  to play  playing

See Exercise 2.

c. One-syllable verbs ending in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel
Except in the case of the final consonants w, x and y, when a one-syllable verb ends in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel, the final consonant must be doubled before the ending ing is added. The reason for this is to reflect the fact that the pronunciation of the single vowel does not change when the ending ing is added.

English vowels have a variety of pronunciations. For instance, each English vowel has two contrasting pronunciations, which are sometimes referred to as short and long. Vowels which are followed by two consonants, and vowels which are followed by a single consonant at the end of a word, are generally pronounced short. In contrast, vowels which are followed by a single consonant followed by another vowel are generally pronounced long.

In the table below, the underlined vowels in the left-hand column are pronounced short; whereas the underlined vowels in the right-hand column are pronounced long. For example:

Short VowelsLong Vowels
  fat  fate
  tapping  taping
  let  delete
  win  wine
  filling  filing
  not  note
  hopping  hoping
  flutter  flute

Thus, in the case of most one-syllable verbs ending in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel, the vowel is pronounced short. In order to reflect the fact that the vowel is also pronounced short in the corresponding present participle, except in the case of w, x and y, the final consonant must be doubled before the ending ing is added.

In the following examples, the consonants which have been doubled are
underlined. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to nod  nodding
  to dig  digging
  to run  running
  to clap  clapping
  to set  setting

When a verb ends in w, x or y preceded by a single vowel, the final consonant is not doubled before the ending is added. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to draw  drawing
  to fix  fixing
  to say  saying

It should also be noted that when a verb ends in a single consonant preceded by two vowels, the final consonant is not doubled before the ending is added. The reason for this is that two vowels together are generally pronounced long. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to rain  raining
  to read  reading
  to meet  meeting
  to soak  soaking

See Exercise 3.

d. Verbs of more than one syllable which end in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel
When a verb of more than one syllable ends in a single consonant other than w, x or y preceded by a single vowel, the final consonant is doubled to form the present participle only when the last syllable of the verb is pronounced with the heaviest stress.

For instance, in the following examples, the last syllables of the verbs have the heaviest stress, and the final consonants are doubled to form the present participles. In these examples, the syllables pronounced with the heaviest stress are underlined. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to expel  expelling
  to begin  beginning
  to occur  occurring
  to omit  omitting

When a verb of more than one syllable ends in w, x or y, the final consonant is not doubled before the ending ing is added. In the following examples, the syllables pronounced with the heaviest stress are underlined. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to allow  allowing
  to affix  affixing
  to convey  conveying

When the last syllable of a verb is not pronounced with the heaviest stress, the final consonant is usually not doubled to form the present participle. For instance, in the following examples, the last syllables of the verbs do not have the heaviest stress, and the final consonants are not doubled to form the present participles. In these examples, the syllables pronounced with the heaviest stress are underlined. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle
  to listen  listening
  to order  ordering
  to focus  focusing
  to limit  limiting

If necessary, a dictionary can be consulted to determine which syllable of a verb has the heaviest stress. Many dictionaries use symbols such as apostrophes to indicate which syllables are pronounced with the heaviest stress.

See Exercise 4.

It should be noted that British and American spelling rules differ for verbs which end in a single l preceded by a single vowel. In British spelling, the l is always doubled before the endings ing and ed
are added. However, in American spelling, verbs ending with a single l follow the same rule as other verbs; the l is doubled only when the last syllable has the heaviest stress. In the following examples, the syllables with the heaviest stress are underlined. For example:

InfinitivePresent Participle 
 American SpellingBritish Spelling
 to signal  signaling  signalling
 to travel  traveling  travelling
   
 to compel  compelling  compelling
 to propel  propelling  propelling

From these examples it can be seen that the American and British spellings for verbs ending in a single l differ only when the last syllable does not have the heaviest stress.

 

4. Questions and negative statements

a. Questions
In the Present Continuous, the verb to be acts as an auxiliary. As is the case with other English tenses, it is the auxiliary which is used to form questions and negative statements.

To form a question in the Present Continuous tense, the auxiliary is placed before the subject. For example:

Affirmative StatementQuestion
  I am working.  Am I working?
  You are working.  Are you working?
  He is working.  Is he working?
  She is working.  Is she working?
  It is working.  Is it working?
  We are working.  Are we working?
  They are working.  Are they working?

See Exercise 5.

b. Negative statements
To form a negative statement, the word not is added after the auxiliary. For example:

Affirmative StatementNegative Statement
  I am working.  I am not working.
  You are working.  You are not working.
  He is working.  He is not working.
  She is working.  She is not working.
  It is working.  It is not working.
  We are working.  We are not working.
  They are working.  They are not working.

See Exercise 6.

c. Negative questions
To form a negative question, the auxiliary is placed before the subject, and the word not is placed after the subject. However, when contractions are used, the contracted form of not follows immediately after the auxiliary. Although there is no universally accepted contraction for am not, the expression aren't I? is often used in spoken English. For example:

Without ContractionsWith Contractions
  Am I not working?  [Aren't I working?] - used in speaking
  Are you not working?  Aren't you working?
  Is he not working?  Isn't he working?
  Is she not working?  Isn't she working?
  Is it not working?  Isn't it working?
  Are we not working?  Aren't we working?
  Are they not working?  Aren't they working?

See Exercise 7.

d. Tag questions
Tag questions are also formed using the auxiliary. In the following examples, the tag questions are underlined. In spoken English, aren't I? is often used as a tag question. For example:

Affirmative StatementAffirmative Statement with Tag Question
  I am working.  I am working, am I not?
  You are working.  You are working, aren't you?
  He is working.  He is working, isn't he?
  She is working.  She is working, isn't she?
  It is working.  It is working, isn't it?
  We are working.  We are working, aren't we?
  They are working.  They are working, aren't they?

See Exercise 8.

 

5. Comparison of the uses of the simple present and present continuous

As pointed out in Chapter 1, the Simple Present tense may be used for stating general truths, and for referring to actions which occur at regular intervals. In the following examples, the verbs in the Simple Present tense are underlined.
e.g. Nova Scotia is a Canadian province. Geese fly south every winter.

In contrast, the Present Continuous tense is usually used to refer to ongoing actions happening at the time of speaking or writing. In the following examples, the verbs in the Present Continuous tense are underlined.
e.g. Right now, I am visiting the province of Nova Scotia. At the moment, a flock of geese is flying overhead.

See Exercise 9.

 

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