What The Present Continuous Doesn’t Mean
If this is the first time you’re hearing from me about it, you’ll probably be surprised to have me tell you that the continuous does not actually mean “right now”. It doesn’t mean this and it isn’t in my opinion really at all a good way to think about it. The sooner you are able to forget this “right now” principle, the sooner you should be able to understand the continuous better and use it correctly more often.
To help convince you to forget it, I’d like to try to prove to you that this “right now” meaning is wrong. To learn more about what it actually does mean, see the other materials about the continuous on this site. But keep reading. If you’re like most people, you need convincing about this, and it’s better if you are convinced. I should be able to do that here.
The Present Continuous Doesn’t Mean “Right Now”
The problem with thinking about the continuous as meaning “right now” is a practical one and that is that it leads to an overly and unnecessarily complex system of ideas and rules for understanding it.
In general, the less true a principle is, the more often it doesn’t work – doesn’t do what is supposed to in other words, which is to systematically predict and explain something, and the more often rule exceptions have be added to keep it usable.
This is what happens when we start with the idea of “right now” for the continuous. It doesn’t work a lot of the time, and new rules need to be added keep it working, and it all gets too complicated and is hard to do right.
Let’s look at some cases of this.
“I live in Europe.”
This is “right now” isn’t it? But we used present simple. Oh, well, you’ve been told, it means “right now” EXCEPT for when we’re talking about things “in general”. But what’s really in general about “me living in Europe.” Not much that I can tell. It’s definitely not something true in general as a statement like “clouds produce rain.” What has really happened is that you’ve been given a bad rule that doesn’t work, and to make up for it not working, you’ve been given another bad rule.
Things like this remind me of how in the Middle Ages, the people then had to theorize all kinds of insane orbits for the planets in order not to break their two starting assumptions that the earth was the center of the universe and that heavenly orbits were circular. The analogous assupmtion for the continuous would be that it means “now” fundamentally.
So anyway, if you’re going along with this philosophy of “now, except in general”, now you have to think about two things whenever you need to decide if you should use the continuous or not. If you had a better, truer starting principle, you wouldn’t, but now with this bad rule you do.
“I am living in Europe.”
“I am reading a book about…”
“The situation looks bad.”
This is about right now, too, isn’t it? Oh, but that’s a “state verb” you’ve been told. Well, here’s there’s some truth and it’s impossible to avoid this idea completely. There are real exceptions with state verbs, but not as many you’ve been taught. A lot lot of the time state verbs follow a better (as in more correct) general rule about the meaning of the continuous than “right now” – which we’ll discuss later in this article.
The verb “look” as in the last example sentence follows this better general rule.
The situation is looking bad.
This is a correct sentence. The standard curriculum would agree that it is correct, but instead of doubting their “right now” definition for the present continuous, they would tell you that it’s another exception. AN EXCEPTION FOR AN EXCEPTION.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see clearly what you would probably think of as unlikely – that and idea taught around the world for 100’s of years is more or less bunk.