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Simple or Continuous Verb Form?‏‎

Möbius stripIf you teach or learn English you’ll know that many students often have a problem deciding whether to use a Continuous Verb Form or a Simple Verb Form. For example, both of these are grammatically correct:

I work here.
I am working here.

But learners can often choose the wrong one and you’ll hear things like:

What are you doing?
I read.

Grammatically correct, but wrong in usage.

As a good, general rule, we use:

  • the simple form to talk about things which happen and finish; the duration of these events is not important
  • the continuous form to talk about things which are happening over a period of time where the timing is important

However, there are other differences between the use of these two forms, some of which are by no means definite.

Long Term vs Short Term

In general, the simple forms refers to a long-term mental state; it is about a belief. The continuous form, on the other hand, refers to what is happening during a period of time.

Q: What do you think about Mozart?
A: Oh, I think he’s the greatest composer who ever lived.

Q: What are you thinking?
A: I am thinking about our holiday.

In the first example above the simple form tells us that we are talking about long-term beliefs and ideas. In the second example we are talking about a short term event – something happening right now which (in a few minutes time) will soon be gone.

Simple forms generally refer to actions which are permanent, while the continuous tenses usually talk about things which are happening for a while only – they will stop sometime.

I live in London.

I am living in London right now before I move abroad to teach English in China.

In the first example, the speaker was probably born in London. London is their home and they have no intention of leaving. In the second example, the speaker perhaps has just moved to London, or is living there for a short while only before moving somewhere else.

Immediacy

Look at these two examples:

I interviewed the President of the club last week for our local paper.

I was interviewing the President of the club last week for our local paper.

The use of the continuous form gives an immediacy to the story. Somehow it makes it more alive and relevant. In a way, it brings it closer to the here and now.

See Also

Continuous Tenses

Past Simple‏‎ and Past Continuous‏‎‏‎

Present Simple‏‎ and Present Continuous‏‎

Future Simple‏‎ and Future Continuous‏

The image shows a Möbius strip which is incredibly simple and yet utterly continuous.

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