Let’s take a good look at how the continuous tenses work.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know about the present simple and present continuous tenses, right?
You know that the present continuous is for actions happening now and that we use the present simple for facts, habits or general situations.
You also know (maybe because I wrote about it back in November) that we can even use the present continuous for planned future actions.
This post isn’t so much about the grammar rules. You know the grammar, I’m sure. This is all about different ways you can use the language to speak more dynamically and creatively.
Present simple and present continuous for telling a good story (or a bad joke)
One of my favourite things about language is breaking the rules. (You may have noticed!)
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t break the rules for fun or to be some sort of mad rebel.
I like doing it because it’s acceptable. In fact, it’s so acceptable that we can say that we’re not really breaking the rules at all.
A good example of this is telling a story.
Let’s look at a fantastic little story to get us going…
One day Karen was feeling sad, so she went to the fair.
She went on the roller coaster…
She went on the the bumper cars…
…and ate some candy floss…
But she was still sad.
Then she went home and suddenly… all her friends were there for her surprise birthday party!
I hope you enjoyed this heartwarming story.
This is a story that happened in the past, right? So we use the past tense…
But we can also tell this story using the present simple.
This makes the story feel a little more real. The present is closer to us than the past, isn’t it?
We can also tell the story using the present continuous.
“What?” I hear you cry. “That’s totally mad.”
Yes. Yes, it is. And I love it. Here’s why.
Do you remember last week’s post? I talked about how the simple tenses can be like a helicopter flying above the action, but the continuous can be like a forest. We’re right in the middle of the action, and we can’t see where, when or how the action will finish.
Well, if you tell a story in the present continuous tense, you get two major benefits:
Firstly, like the present simple, it’s closer, so feels more real.
But it’s also like David Lynch and Twin Peaks. Let me explain.
Back in the late ‘80s, David Lynch started writing and directing Twin Peaks — a murder mystery TV series.
It was really exciting and everyone was completely addicted to it. No one knew where it was going. No one knew what was going to happen next.
How did Lynch achieve this effect?
Well, it felt like no one knew what was going to happen next because even he didn’t know what was going to happen next.
He was completely making it all up with no plan.
It’s like he was telling the story in the present continuous.
Because it’s the “forest” tense, we’re right in the middle of the action. We get the feeling that the person who’s telling the story doesn’t even know how it’s going to end. And that makes it more exciting.
Here’s Karen’s story again:
Notice how shorter actions that are being directly compared to longer actions don’t take the continuous. (“One day she’s feeling sad, so she goes to the fair.”) Of course, stative verbs also don’t take the continuous (“… all of her friends are there”).
Present simple for coordinating a plan
Now Karen’s happy, I think it’s time that we hang out with some bank robbers.
Here they are making a plan:
Now, considering that this plan is about the future, which tense do you think they’re using?
Well, they could be using some future form. Let’s listen and check:
“What? That’s weird! Again!”
Yep. That’s English for you. Although they’re discussing the future, they’re using the present simple.
Well, the simple rule (ha!) is that you can use the present simple when you’re coordinating a plan. The good news is that you don’t have to be robbing a bank.
You can be organising some sort of performance:
Then after Helena does the juggling, I come in with the giraffe.
Or something more serious and businesslike:
OK. So Hank deals with the oil men. That’s when you, Jerry, make your move and talk to the government people while we cut a deal with the shark.
(Business may not be my strength, I’ll be honest. I don’t really teach business English. That’s why I hired Terri.)
Anyway, the present simple like this has two main uses.
- It’s easier and cleaner, which is exactly what you want when you’re making a plan.
- It feels closer to reality. When you use it you can feel the action, which is very useful when making a plan.
With Karen’s story and the bank robbers here, we’re looking at something called “aspect.” The continuous aspect, for example, isn’t really a tense as it doesn’t mark time. What do I mean by that? When we tell Karen’s story, we’re not using the present continuous because the story’s in the present. (It isn’t.) We use it for a certain effect.
Thinking about aspect instead of tense can be a really useful way of understanding why people “break the rules” so often.
Present simple for scheduled future events
Here’s a conversation between annoying Jim and Kris & Chris:
Why did Kris say, “our plane leaves on Thursday morning?”
There’s a simple rule for this one:
Scheduled events, even if we’re referring to ones that just happen in the future, can be described using the present simple.
This isn’t necessarily because the plane leaves every Thursday morning (though this one probably does). We can also use it for scheduled events that only happen once:
I got tickets for Gwar on Sunday!
Great! What time does it start?
Erm… doors open at 7.
There’s only one Gwar gig on a Sunday at this venue. But it’s scheduled, so you can use the present simple. That’s it!
Present continuous for annoying or weird habits
Finally, one of my favourite uses of the present continuous.
We can use the present continuous to describe weird or annoying habits. If we do this, we usually use a word like “always,” “constantly,” “forever” or “relentlessly.” In fact, the more exaggerated the adverb, the more it expresses the weirdness or the annoyingness of the habit.
The government is relentlessly raising taxes.
My stupid neighbour is always playing stupid music.
My cat is constantly going mental.
I’m going to leave you with an example one of my students gave me that made me laugh:
My dog is constantly eating cornflakes.
If you’re reading, Ilya, thanks for that!