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Continuous Tenses and Meaning

continuous tense: any tense, past, present or future, formed with the auxiliary verb be and a main verb in -ing form (for example: he is speaking, they have been working)

There are some verbs that we do not normally use with continuous (or progressive) tenses. And there are other verbs that have one meaning with simple tenses and a different meaning with continuous tenses.

Non-continuous Verbs

Non-continuous verbs are verbs that we do not normally use with continuous tenses. These "stative" verbs are about state, not action, and they cannot express the continuous or progressive aspect. Here are some of the most common non-continuous verbs:

Look at these example sentences, right and wrong:

I want a coffee. not I am wanting a coffee.
I don't believe you are right. not I am not believing you are right.
Does this pen belong to you? not Is this pen belonging to you?
It seemed wrong. not It was seeming wrong.
I don't hear anything. not I am not hearing anything.

Notice that we often use can + see/hear:

With verbs that we cannot use in continuous tenses, there is no real action or activity. Compare hear and listen. The verb "hear" means "receive sound in your ears". There is no action or activity by you. We cannot use hear with continuous tenses. But listen means "try to hear". You make an effort to hear. There is a kind of action or activity. We can use listen with continuous tenses.

Dual Meaning Verbs

Some verbs have two different meanings or senses. For one sense we cannot use a continuous tense. For the other sense we can use any tense.

For example, the verb think has two different meanings:

  1. to believe, to have an opinion
    I think red is a sexy colour.
  2. to reflect, to use your brain to solve a problem
    I am thinking about my homework.

In sense 1 there is no real action, no activity. This sense is called "stative". In sense 2 there is a kind of action, a kind of activity. This sense is called "dynamic".

When we use the stative sense, we cannot use a continuous tense. When we use the dynamic sense, we can use any tense, depending on the situation.

Look at the examples in the table below:

Stative sense
- no real action
must use:
Dynamic sense
- a kind of action
can use:
If you have a doubt about a particular verb, ask yourself the question: "Is there any real action or activity?"

be and Continuous Tenses

The verb be can be an auxiliary verb (Marie is learning English) or a main verb (Marie is French). On this page we look at be as a main verb.

Usually we do not use main verb be with continuous tenses. For example, we say:

Sometimes, however, we can use main verb be with a continuous tense. This is when the real sense of be is "act" or "behave". Also, the action is temporary. Compare the examples in the table below:

be as main verb
simple tense continuous tense
Mary is a careful person. (Mary is always careful - it's her nature.) John is being careful. (John is acting carefully now, but maybe he is not always careful - we don't know.)
Is he always so stupid? (Is that his personality?) They were being really stupid. (They were behaving really stupidly at that moment.)
Andrew is not usually selfish. (It is not Andrew's character to be selfish.) Why is he being so selfish? (Why is he acting so selfishly at the moment?)

Notice that we also make a difference between "to be sick" and "to be being sick":

Here is main verb be conjugated in the Present Continuous tense:
I am being
You are being
He, she, it is being
We are being
They are being