The difference between Simple Present and present continuous

The Difference Between Simple Present and Present Continuous

So many people have problems with the simple present and present continuous (progressive) tenses while learning English as a foreign language. They might not know how to differentiate between them, how to use them and how to form them. So, what is the difference between simple present and present continuous?

The difference between simple present and present continuous is that simple present is used to describe repetitive and permanent situations while present continuous is used to talk about current and temporary situations as well as gradual changes. Common signal words for present continuous are right now and currently; for simple present they are usually and always. 

Quick Overview: Simple present vs Present Continuous

  • Simple Present
    • Use 1: routines / repetitive situations
    • Use 2: permanent situations
  • Present Continuous
    • Use 1: situations in the moment (right now)
    • Use 2: temporary situations
    • Use 3: gradual changes

To differentiate between the two possible uses for each of the tenses, you would need a time reference (e.g. right now / currently vs. everyday / never). 

Ice Breaker

What is the difference between the two sentences below? 

work for an international company. vs

am working for an international company.

Simple Present 

work for an international company.

The verb in this sentence is in simple present and it implies that this is the person’s permanent job.  

Present Continuous

am working for an international company.

The verb in this sentence is in present continuous and it implies that the person is only working there temporarily. / This can also mean that they are working there at the moment of speaking. 

Time references such as “at the moment” can be used but are optional.

How do you use simple present? 

How do you use simple present? 

1 Repetition: To describe a situation/activity that repeats itself (Key Words: routine)

  • She always comes too late to meetings. 

2 Permanence: To describe a situation/activity that is permanent (Key Words: standard, general, fact).

  • work for an international company and deal with customer complaints. 
  • Where do you live? – I live in New York city. 

Signal Words: usually, normally, frequently, always, every day/night, permanently, sometimes, rarely, seldom, never, often, occasionally, regularly  

How is simple present formed?

Positive Statement: infinitive verb 

The infinitive form is what is written in the normal dictionary.

It is the same form for all of the pronouns except for he/she/it – you have to add an “s”.

For example it is I/you/we/they work and he/she/it works. 

Negative Statement: do/does (not) (short version: don’t /doesn’t)

  •  I don’t like to work late. 
  • Don’t forget the “don’t”!

Question: do/does (not)

  • What does it mean if you say “I am ill today”?

How do you use present continuous? 

1 Right Now: To describe something that you are doing while you are speaking / writing

  • I’m talking to my friend on the phone (right now). 
  • Signal Words 1: at the moment, right now, in this moment

2 Temporality: To describe current, temporary situations/activities/projects (they will end at some point) 

  • This week I’m answering my colleague’s emails while his is sick.
  • Signal Words 2: currently, (right) now, this week/month/year, at present, today, at the moment

3 Gradual Change: To describe an event/action that is gradually changing over time

  •  Technology is becoming more and more complex.

How is present continuous formed?

Positive Statement: am/is/are (to be) + verb –ing

Negative Statement: am/is/are + not + verb -ing

Question: am/is/are (not) + verb –ing

For Example: Are you (not) going to the concert tonight? 

Compare these examples: 

Example 1a: I work at McDonald’s.  

Example 1b: I am working at McDonald’s. 

  • Meaning 1a: His work at McDonald’s is his permanent job. 
  • Meaning 1b: current, temporary situation / at the moment of speaking

Example 2a: My computer does not work. 

Example 2b: My computer is not working. 

  • Meaning 2a: the computer is permanently defective/broken
  • Meaning 2b: the computer is having a temporary technical problem (at the moment of speaking)


What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences?  

3a: I am reading a book. 

3b: I read books. 

Answer: 3a implies that the person is either reading a book in the moment of speaking (right now) or currently reading book, for example during this month (temporary). 3b implies that the person generally reads books, perhaps as a hobby. 

If you liked this article, then save it and share it with others! 

Sign up to get the free Ultimate English Cheat Sheet – a quick overview of the most important grammar concepts you need to know to master English.