Quora Q&A – Present Simple & Continuous
What is the difference between present simple and present continuous in meaning?
Rapid English Answers
I’ve been giving individual lessons to individual adult professionals for the past 9 years. I’ve read the other answers here and think I can provide a unique insight and maybe a better answer to the actual question of what the difference in MEANING is between the present simple and continuous.
The answers given are pretty much what you would find in most grammar books and are good as descriptions of all of the kinds of situations that the present simple and continuous are used in. But if we can look a layer deeper at what, behind those situations, these tenses actually mean, you’ll have something a lot more memorable and powerful, and finally a lot more useful at improving your understanding and speech. When taught this way, most of my students’ problems with the continuous and simple are gone in 3–6 weeks of lessons.
So what do the continuous and simple mean? It’s easiest to start by thinking about what the continuous means. Consider these two sentences: 1) “I live abroad.” 2) “I am living abroad.” The two are exactly the same except that the first is in the simple and the second in the continuous. If, therefore, we know the difference in meaning that a native speaker would hear between the two, we can understand what the difference between the simple and continuous ARE – more specifically, as we’ll discuss, we’ll know what meaning the continuous ADDS to the meaning of the simple.
“I live abroad.”
– “I am living abroad.”
The difference that a native speaker hears is that the second sentence might be or is probably TEMPORARY. This difference exists because this is the meaning that the continuous HAS and ADDS to the meaning that already exists without it (in this case to the meaning of the present simple).
Looking more closely, the meanings of “live” in the sentence “I live abroad” are: 1) the meaning of the verb “to live” – whatever that meaning is (alive, doing all the things that people do when alive, etcetera) and 2) NOW. And the meaning of “am living” in “I am living abroad” are: 1) again, the meaning of the verb “to live”, 2) NOW, and 3) TEMPORARY.
simple = 1) verb + 2) now
continuous = 1) verb + 2) now + 3) temporary
The meaning of the continuous is ADDED to the meaning of the simple. The present simple means NOW, and the present continuous means NOW, BUT ONLY NOW (temporary).
In this way, we can start to see that present simple doesn’t really have all of the meanings that you’ve probably been told it does. It doesn’t really mean “in general”, “always”, “habitually”. It is used for those cases simply because everything has to be in SOME tense, it is true NOW, and it is USUALLY not logical to ADD the meaning of TEMPORARY in those situations. We can see this by seeing that if it is logical to add the meaning of temporary to one of these situations, we actually will use the continuous. Take this example:
“I go to museums and cultural activities on the weekend.”
Now, normally, as a habitual action, we would use put this in the simple as we have done – not really because it is a habitual action, but because normally we don’t know about any end coming to habitual activities in relevant time frames – in other words, it isn’t usually LOGICAL to say (add the meaning by using the continuous) that a habitual action is temporary.
But what if it is logical to say this? What if we’re just on a 2-month business trip in Paris, for example, and going to museums is something that we’re doing while we’re there that will obviously stop when we go home. Well, then we WOULD use the continuous and say:
“I am going to museums and cultural activities on the weekend (while I’m here).”
In the end, the easiest and best way to understand the present simple is that it doesn’t mean anything at all except NOW. It is kind of the DEFAULT tense for the present – we use it when none of the meanings of the other tenses that CAN be ADDED to it fit. So when distinguishing between the present simple and the present continuous, you only have to think TEMPORARY or NOT TEMPORARY – logical to talk about in a temporary way (and want to or have to) OR not logical to talk about in a temporary way – and use the continuous for the first and the simple for the second.
I hope this helps. You’ll find more explanations like these as well as free video lessons, exercises, and other learning resources on my website at //rapidenglish.me. As mentioned, I also give private lessons, which are over Skype and you can also find information about on the site.