Present progressive - meaning
We've seen the form of the present progressive. Let's look in a bit more detail now at why we use it - its meaning. The name might already have given you a bit of a clue - the word "progressive" suggests something which is in progress or changing. Let's see if that clue is accurate.
Actions in progress at or around the time of speaking
It turns out that the clue we got from the name "progressive" was accurate. Have a look at these sentences:
John and Anna are playing tennis.
Superman is flying very quickly through the sky.
The speaker chooses to use present progressive in both these sentences to tell us that these actions are in progress at the time of speaking. For this to be true these actions must have started at some point before the time of speaking (although we don't know exactly when - maybe 10 seconds before, maybe one hour) and will finish at some point after the time of speaking (again we don't know exactly when.)If we compare these sentences to the present simple we can see the difference in meaning:
John and Anna play tennis.
Superman flies very quickly through the sky.
Now we simply have two facts. We don't have any information about whether John, Anna and Superman are playing tennis and flying at the moment (they may or may not be) - we simply know that this is what they do.
|John and Anna are playing tennis.||John and Anna play tennis.|
We also use present progressive to talk about situations which we think of as temporary. Have a look at these examples:
Jane's driving her husband's car at the moment because hers is being repaired.
I'm staying with a friend in London.
We understand when we hear these sentences that as soon as Jane's car is repaired she will stop driving her husband's, and that some time soon I will find a place of my own to live. So we think of these situations as temporary and expect them to end soon. We often use time expressions like "for the time being" and "this week" in this kind of sentence.
Let's compare one of these sentences to the present simple:
I'm staying with a friend in London. (present progressive)
I stay with a friend in London. (present simple)
As we saw when we looked at present simple, if the speaker chooses to say "I stay with a friend in London" he wants to give the impression that it's fairly permanent - he doesn't have any intention of finding a place of his own in the foreseeable future. (In fact this sentence sounds quite strange, because to stay with a friend permanently is unusual.) If instead he chooses to say "I'm staying with a friend in London" he gives the impression that it's only temporary - he's staying with his friend now but expects to find his own place soon.
Now, if you look again at the "playing tennis" and "Superman" examples you might well be thinking that they too are temporary situations. Unless John and Anna intend to continue their game of tennis for all eternity we can understand that the action will end sometime soon. So what's the difference? Well, let's write two different versions of the"tennis" example and find out:
John and Anna are playing tennis.
John and Anna are playing tennis this week because the swimming pool is closed.
In the first sentence the action is in progress as we speak. In the second sentence though the emphasis is on the fact that John and Anna's situation (having to play tennis) is a temporary one, which we expect to end just as soon as the gym reopens. They may or may not be actually playing tennis at this particular moment.
And this tells us something important about meaning. Very often just the verb form itself (choosing present progressive rather than present simple, for example) gives us enough information about the meaning of what is said. But sometimes - like in this case - we may also need information from the context (what we know about the situation) or from the words surrounding the example (called the cotext) in order to understand the more precise meaning. We'll see this quite a lot as we carry on looking at the meanings of different verb forms.
We said earlier that the word "progressive" can suggest something which is changing, which brings us to the next reason to use present progressive. Have a look at these sentences:
Alex is getting taller every day!
House prices are going up.
These are changing situations. Once again there is not necessarily a clear distinction between this and the other meanings we've already seen. The actions of "getting taller" and "going up" are both in progress at the time of speaking and are probably temporary too. Alex will, we imagine, stop growing at some point and house prices will probably fall at some point too! But with these sentences we have the added meaning that something (Alex's height, house prices) is changing. We didn't get this meaning with our other examples - there was no change involved when we said "Superman is flying" and "She's driving her husband's car".
Repeated actions around the time of speaking
We use present progressive to show that an action or occurrence happens repeatedly around the time of speaking. Sometimes this repeated action causes us to be surprised or curious because of a change in the other person's normal behaviour, and sometimes it makes us irritated. Have a look at these examples:
You're seeing Jane a lot these days.
Bob's always complaining about how difficult his life is.
In the first example the speaker is surprised, or perhaps curious to know more, because "seeing Jane a lot" represents a change in the other person's normal behaviour. In the second example the speaker is annoyed at Bob's constant complaining. We normally use "always" before the main verb to show this irritation.
Now, saying these two sentences in the present simple also works, but again if we do this we are left with just plain facts - we lose the information about how the speaker feels about the situation:
You see a lot of Jane these days.
Bob always complains about how difficult his life is.