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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Simple and continuous tenses - what’s the difference?

Trinity CertTESOL

The English tense system, as with most languages that use different verb forms to communicate the time when they happened, is quite complex. The way that different languages, English included, communicate time is quite abstract and subjective, so it is important that we teach tenses to learners clearly and relatably, so that we build an understanding of how and why we use different grammatical forms the way that we do.

One major contrast in the English tense system is between simple and continuous tenses. ‘Simple’ and ‘continuous’ are actually aspects of tenses, which show us something about how the action being described is viewed by the speaker. The simple and continuous aspects can be communicated in past, present or future time, to show this view and add detail to how the action is seen as happening.

Focus on structure

The structure of simple and continuous aspects is the same, no matter whether we are talking about past, present or future actions:

Continuous tenses use a ‘be’ auxiliary, which is put into he past, present or future form according to the time of the action being described, plus a verb with an -ing ending, as follows:

I am flying in a hot-air balloon (present ‘be’ auxiliary: ‘am’ + Ving = present continuous)

I was flying in a hot air balloon (past ‘be’ auxiliary: ‘was’ + Ving = past continuous)

I will be flying in a hot-air balloon (future ‘be’ form: ‘will be’ + Ving = ‘future continuous’)

It is worth noting that although the third example above is a future form, it is not strictly a tense, as the controlling auxiliary in the verb form is ‘will’ rather than ‘be’. See our previous post about future forms for more on this. Nevertheless, the pattern fits closely enough for the ‘future continuous’ to be included here.

Simple tenses are named as simple because unlike other tense forms, they do not use an auxiliary in their positive (affirmative) form:

I swim in the sea every day (Subject + present simple form of the verb)

I swam in the sea every day (Subject + past simple form of the verb)

I will swim in the sea every day (subject + will + infinitive form of the verb)

Again, the future form here is not strictly a ‘future tense’, as the auxiliary ‘will’ is used. English does not have a specific future verb form with a future verb ending, so does not have a ‘future tense’, as other languages such as French or Italian have.

In question and negative forms, simple tenses use a ‘do’ auxiliary:

Do you like fairgrounds? (Present auxiliary ‘do’ - positive form/question)

I don’t like fairgrounds. (Present auxiliary ‘don’t’ - negative form)

Did you enjoy the fair? (Past auxiliary ‘did’ - positive form/question)

I didn’t enjoy the fair. (Past auxiliary ‘didn’t’ - negative form)

Will you go to the fair this weekend?

I won’t go to the fair this weekend.

Again, in the future forms, the auxiliary ‘will is used for the ‘future simple’, so this does not strictly follow the simple tense rule.

Focus on meaning

Perhaps the most challenging part of understanding tenses in English is the differences in meaning between the different forms. The concept of simple and continuous tenses is commonly oversimplified, which causes issues with comprehension and usage in early-stage learners. So what do simple and continuous tenses communicate about an action?

Completeness vs. Incompleteness

A major difference between simple and continuous tenses in all their times (past, present and future forms) is that simple actions are seen by the speaker as being complete, whereas continuous actions are seen as incomplete at another time. This is why they are known as ‘continuous’ - they are still continuing when another time or action occurs.

We can feel this incompleteness if we contrast simple and continuous forms of the same verb, as in:

I walked to work yesterday.

I was walking to work yesterday.

In the second example, the use of continuous tense feels incomplete, like there is something being unsaid, or a detail missing - what happened on your way to work? The sentence would be completed with a simple action which interrupted the continuous ‘walking, as in:

I was walking to work yesterday, when I saw a man holding a parrot on his shoulder.

However, this does not mean that all continuous actions have to be accompanied by simple, interrupting actions. Often, the time or action which interrupts is clear from context, or implied, as in:

I am working on a new project. (In the present continuous, the action is still in progress at the time of speaking, so the action is interrupted by the moment ‘now’).

What were you doing in that restaurant? (Implying that the speaker is asking about the person’s actions when they saw them - the interrupting action is seeing that person).

‘Openness’ vs. ‘Closed-ness’

The fact that continuous actions can (and usually are) interrupted by another time or action means that we see them as ‘open’, meaning that other actions can happen in the same period. By contrast, simple actions are ‘closed’, meaning that other actions cannot interrupt them - they are communicated as complete, start-to-finish actions.

The ‘closed-ness’ of simple actions also means that there is often a sense of permanence to some simple actions - they are uninterruptible, therefore less likely to change. This is why state verbs are not typically used in the continuous form. If you love someone, like a particular food, or have a particular characteristic, we see that as an ongoing, permanent state, for example:

I am tall (not ‘I am being tall’)

I love chocolate ice-cream (not ‘I am loving chocolate ice-cream’, though in informal speech, we can talk about ‘loving something at the moment’, implying that you are particularly enjoying that thing now, more than usual - see the famous McDonald’s slogan as an example of this)

Repetition vs duration

A final, and more conceptual, difference in meaning between simple and continuous tenses is the contrast between repeated individual actions (I play football on Saturdays / I start work at 9am) versus actions which have duration (I’ve been studying all night / he was driving me crazy all week). This contrast comes from the same open, interruptible or temporary concept which is part of continuous tenses.

In summary, there are many differences in meaning and structure between simple and continuous tenses, not all of which are teachable at the same low level of study when these forms are typically introduced. Different aspects of form and meaning should be presented to students when they are ready to think about them, usually in stages with different types of tense from beginner, through elementary and intermediate stages of development.

The next time you teach a tense, whether it is simple or continuous, think about whether it is worth framing your presentation and practice with the above features in mind. Think about the duration, interruptibility and openness of continuous tenses, versus the closed, repetitive and complete aspects of simple tenses. These ways of approaching tense work typically help learners to take more control over their grammar by communicating according to how they perceive an action, not just what the grammar rule tells them to use.

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