“I work in London” versus “I am working in London”: Are You Making These Mistakes in the Present Simple and Present Continuous?

Over the past few weeks I’ve found that most of my students – whether advanced or beginner – have needed a bit of a review of the present simple and the present continuous (also called the present progressive).

So whether you started learning English a few months or a few years ago, here’s a bit of a refresher. We’ll start with a quick review of the forms (Section 1), go over when to use which tense (Section 2), and then talk about 6 mistakes I often hear people make (Section 3).

Some of you may be more confident with forms and want to skip straight to Sections 2 and/or 3. Feel free to jump to any part of the post that you need. They can all be read independently of one another.

Section 1: Forms

Present simple:

positive // negative // question

I work in London. // I don’t work in London. // Do I work in London?
You work in London. // You don’t work in London. // Do you work in London?
He/she/it works in London. // He/she/it doesn’t work in London? // Does he/she/it work in London?
We work in London. // We don’t work in London. // Do we work in London?
They work in London. // They don’t work in London. // Do they work in London?

Present continuous/progressive:

positive // negative // question

I am working in London. // I’m not working in London. // Am I working in London?
You are working in London. // You’re not working in London. // Are you working in London?
He/she/it is working in London. // He’s/she’s/it’s not working in London. // Is he/she/it working in London?
We are working in London. //  We’re not working in London. // Are we working in London?
They are working in London. // They’re not working in London. // Are they working in London?

Section 2: Usage

Present simple:

1) Use the present simple for a routine action, or something you do regularly.

Key words: never, rarely, sometimes, often, frequently, usually, always, every day/week/month/year, once a day/week/month/year, etc.)

They play tennis.
She never plays tennis with them.
I usually work in London.

2) Use the present simple for facts (or things you believe to be true).

Cats like milk.
Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
London isn’t a big city. (Note: It doesn’t matter if the “fact” is really true or not.)

3) Use the present simple for an scheduled event in the near future.

The train leaves at 7 PM.
The play starts at 8:30.
The lecture doesn’t begin at 9 AM.

Present continuous/progressive:

1) Use the present continuous/progressive for actions happening right now.

I am writing a blog post.
You are reading about the present tense.
We are talking about tenses.

2) Use the present continuous/progressive for longer actions currently taking place.

I am working in Glasgow this week (but I usually work in London).
She is reading an amazing book.
I am not studying to become a doctor.

3) Use the present continuous/progressive for near future plans.

We are meeting some friends this weekend.
She is coming to the party later.
Is he visiting his parents this Christmas?

Section 3: Common mistakes

Mistake 1: Leaving out the “be” form in the present continuous/progressive

Incorrect: We working in London this week.
Correct: We are working in London this week.

Mistake 2: Using the present continuous/progressive form instead of the present simple with “stative verbs”

Incorrect: This room is smelling weird.
Correct: This room smells weird.

Incorrect: I am wanting coffee.
Correct: I want coffee.

Incorrect: He is needing her help.
Correct: He needs her help.

Why?  Verbs like “smell”, “taste”, look”, “love”, “like”, “need”, and “want” are stative verbs. This means that “smell” describes the way that the room is, not what the room is doing. Similarly, “want” and “need” are not actions in the same way that “run” and “jump” are. Instead, they describe a state of being.

Mistake 3: Incorrect adverb position

Incorrect: He likes only pizza.
Correct: He only likes pizza.

Incorrect: Do you drink always coffee in the morning?
Correct: Do you always drink coffee in the morning?

Mistake 4: Leaving out the helping verb “do” in present simple questions

Incorrect: Play you tennis?
Correct: Do you play tennis?

Incorrect: How often drink you coffee?
Correct: How often do you drink coffee?

Mistake 5: Using the the present continuous/progressive instead of the present simple for a routine action or fact

Incorrect: Water is freezing at 0 degrees Celsius.
Correct: Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius.

Incorrect: Our company is manufacturing cars.
Correct: Our company manufactures cars.

Mistake 6: Forgetting to add as “s” to the present simple verb form with “he/she/it”

Incorrect: She prefer tea.
Correct: She prefers tea.

Finally…

Because any language comes with a whole bunch of exceptions, the best tip to make sure you are using the correct form is:

Make sure that you are getting a lot of good, correct input in English. You can watch films, or videos or lectures, or read often or listen to podcasts.

Doing this will allow you to hear these tenses used correctly over and over again, which will help you to build up an intuition about the language. You will be able to decide on the correct form without thinking as much about the rules every time, and you’ll become much better at identifying mistakes.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below. Happy learning!

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