I suppose the reason the two are mistaken for each other is that they are similar in sound when speaking. I often hear students saying “I am speak” or “I speaking” etc. Apart from using the wrong tense, students often use the wrong structure.

In this blog I am going to go through the important points that you have to remember regarding the present simple and the present continuous.
The most important thing that you must understand is when we use these tenses. We use the present simple to talk about things that we do generally such as a habit or a hobby or even our work. For example “I speak English” or “He paints houses”.

We use the present continuous to talk about things that we are doing now or for an action that is in progress now. For example “I am speaking English” or “the machine is sending the information”.

The second thing that you must remember about these two tenses is how to structure them. With the present simple we use the pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’, ‘you’ or ‘they’ and then the main verb. For example “He plays the guitar in a band”. As you can see from this example it doesn’t mean that he is playing the guitar now, but we are communicating that this is something he does generally.

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Another example of the present simple is “They work all day”. This doesn’t refer to today specifically, but it means that they generally work all day. The form of the main verb is similar to the infinitive without “to”.

With the present continuous we use the pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’, ‘you’ or ‘they’ and then we use the verb ‘to be’ and a verb with ‘ing’ at the end. It is important to remember that we must use the verb ‘to be’ when we use a continuous tense. In this case we use the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense. For example “I am writing a letter”. The word “am” is the verb ‘to be’ in the first person singular and this is followed by the verb ‘to write’ with ‘ing’ at the end of it. The pronoun ‘I’ tells us who does the action, the word ‘am’ tells us when the action happens and the word ‘writing’ tells us the action.

A lot of students who are at the level where they are learning the difference between the present simple and the present continuous understand the difference and know the rules but when it comes to speaking they get confused. This is because listening to a native can be quite difficult for language learners, especially those at a lower level.

One tip to remember is that you should listen for certain words in a conversation. If the speaker is using the verb with ‘ing’ it can mean that the tense is continuous. If they are using the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense with a main verb ending in ‘ing’ it means that they are speaking in the present continuous tense.

If somebody asks you a question, you should listen for the words ‘do’; ‘does’; ‘am’; ‘are’; ‘is’.

If the person begins the question with the words ‘do’ or ‘does’ then they are asking you something with the present simple tense. We use the verb ‘to do’ in the present simple tense in questions and negative sentences. For example “Do you speak English?” or “Does he have a pen?” These are questions about things you do or have generally, not something that is happening now.

If the person begins the question with the words ‘am’, ‘are’ or ‘is’ then it means that the question is in the present continuous tense. This is because we use the verb ‘to be’ for the continuous tenses and ‘am’, ‘are’ and ‘is’ are present tense auxiliaries. For example “Are you listening to me?” or “Is he talking on the phone?”

Listening for these words can help you identify the tense. You should be aware of the difference between these tenses because it forms the base of the language which means that it is very important.

G. Harman

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