Continuous aspect

Learn about continuous verb forms and do some exercises to practise using them.

Level: intermediate

We use continuous aspect:

  • for something happening before and after a specific time:

He's getting on the train. (before and after the moment of speaking)
It was a quarter past ten. We were watching the news on television.

  • for something happening before and after another action:

Mother will be cooking the dinner when we get home.
We were waiting for the bus when it started to rain.

  • for something continuing for some time:

Everybody will be waiting for us.
They had been working hard all day.

  • for something happening again and again:

They've been doing that every day this week.
The children were always shouting.
He will be practising the piano every night.

  • for something temporary:

We are renting an apartment until our house is ready.
He was working in a garage during the vacation.

  • for something new:

We have moved from Birmingham. We're living in Manchester now.
He had left university and was working in his father's business.

  • to describe something changing or developing:

Everything has been getting more difficult.
He was growing more bad-tempered every day. 

Continuous aspect 1

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Continuous aspect 2

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We can use continuous aspect:

How long have you been sitting there?
I don't know how long she had been learning Spanish.

Your friends will be looking for you.
They might be playing tennis.

You should have been driving more carefully.
Soon we will have been living here for 25 years.

Continuous aspect 3

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Continuous aspect 4

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We do not normally use the continuous aspect with stative verbs. We use the simple instead:

I don't understand you. (NOT am not understanding)
When I got home, I really needed a shower. (NOT was needing)
I've always liked John. (NOT been liking)

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Submitted by g-ssan on Thu, 22/09/2022 - 19:24

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Hello teachers ,

I would like to thank you all for your dedication to our education and if you allow me i have question .
(for something happening) is this continuous tense ?
And by the way can we enough with just verb (ing) without verb be in continuous tense sentence if the listener understand the context .

Regards

G-ssan

Hello G-ssan,

There are two ways to look at this. You could see it as a reduced relative clause:

We use continuous aspect for something (which is) happening before and after a specific time.

In this analysis the verb is present continuous and the auxiliary is simply omitted along with the relative pronoun 'which' when the sentence is reduced.

A second way to see the example, which is the way I prefer, is to see this as a participle clause adding extra information to the sentence. You can read more about participle clauses and how they are formed and used, on this page:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/b1-b2-grammar/participle-clauses

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by espe on Sat, 03/09/2022 - 23:17

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Hello LearnEnglish Team,
would you please tell me in which semantic contexts the following sentences can be used?
1) "Hurry up, you are late for school."
2) "Hurry up, you are being late for school."
3) "Hurry up, you are going to be late for school."
4) "Hurry up, you will be late for school."
Thanks in advance.
Christopher

Hi Christopher,

In 1) the person is already late (i.e., school has already started).

In 3) and 4), school has not started yet so the person is not late yet, but they will be (after taking into account how long it takes to travel to school, for example). There is little or no difference between 3) and 4).

Sentence 2) is not a regular usage. The phrase "You are being ..." is used to present a person's behaviour as temporary and possibly unusual or out of character for them (rather than a characteristic that they normally have). For example, "He's being nice today". This means that it is today in particular that he is behaving that way, and it may imply that he is not usually nice. Being late for school isn't a personal characteristic, so "you are being ..." doesn't fit here.

I hope that helps to differentiate them.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by espe on Sat, 03/09/2022 - 23:10

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Hello LearnEnglish Team,
can you tell me the difference in meaning between the following sentences:
1) "I am looking forward to hearing from you soon."
2) "I look forward to hearing from you soon."
Thanks in advance
Christopher

Hello espe,

There is no significant difference in meaning between them, though the first one suggests a stronger felt desire and so is a little more informal than the second one. So the second one would be more appropriate in most formal communications, whereas the first would generally be better in communication with close friends or family.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by jitu_jaga on Tue, 23/08/2022 - 11:10

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Hello Peter Kirk and Jonathon,
While reading books most of the times
I find some verbs that authors use interchangeably like these-
Ben was standing/ stood behind me on the bus.
Ben was sitting/sat by the pond.
A lantern was hanging/ hung off the ceiling.
She was waiting/waited at the bus stop.
My question is - we use continuous Tenses
for actions in progress. Then, why the authors use simple past Tenses and sometimes use continuous Tenses like above for those verbs for action in progress.
I don't understand the grammar here. Please explain.

Hi jitu_jaga,

Even though both the past simple and continuous may be grammatically correct, I wouldn't say that they are interchangeable because they do have different meanings. To see those meanings clearly, we need to look at a larger piece of text. We cannot look only at a single sentence, because the meanings refer to other actions/verbs in the text.

Here are some examples from a story called 'Love me, love me not' (you can find the full story here).

She sat down next to him at the table. He was eating in front of a big pile of books, looking cute with a pen behind his ear.

Here, the past continuous shows us that he started eating before she sat down. It would not have the same meaning if the writer had used past simple here ("She sat down ... He ate ..."). Instead, that would mean a repeated action (i.e., he always ate in that way), or perhaps a single action that started after she sat down.

Kate was putting clothes away while the baby slept. She picked up one of Michael's favourite jumpers and held the soft material next to her cheek.

Here, the past continuous shows that the action (putting clothes away) is a background action for the main story events (the baby slept / she picked up Michael's jumper). By using the past continuous, the writer shows the reader that putting clothes away is not a main event, and that something else more important happened during it. In contrast, if the writer had used past simple ("Kate put clothes away"), it would present the action as a main story event (these are normally told using the past simple, in a past narrative).

So, writers use the past continuous to relate the action to others in the story. In this way, writers of stories can create more stories that are more interesting and realistic. On the other hand, using the past simple for most or all verbs in a text is more typical of factual reports, where writers aim to simply report what happened event by event.

I hope that helps to understand it.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Jonathan,
why not say "Kate was putting clothes away while the baby was sleeping."? From my understanding at first the baby fell asleep and sometime after that Kate started putting clothes away while the baby slept on. So, sleeping would be the background process. Since putting clothes away also took a while (overlapping time spans) the continuous form is appropriate here too. What do you think?
Christopher

Hi Christopher,

Good question. Yes, I think the continuous form (was sleeping) would also work. I don't think there would be anything wrong with that.

However, it seems important to note that in the story (click here to read the full story), immediately before the part I quoted, the baby's sleeping problems are the main topic. It says "The baby hadn't stopped crying for two hours", and Kate expresses some anger. It might be unusual in this context, therefore, to say "while the baby was sleeping" in the very next paragraph because that would present it as a mere background for other events, de-emphasising it, when actually the baby sleeping seems significant and even surprising in the context of the story. Perhaps this is the reason for using the past simple (slept).

I'm not the author of this story - that's just my understanding of it :) What do you think?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by felps on Mon, 23/05/2022 - 19:35

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Hello everybody, just a question. Which of the following sentences are correct / incorrect? Or do they transmit different ideas? 1. It has been raining, 2. It is been raining. Thank you!!!

Hi felps,

Sentence 1 is correct but 2 is not. Sentence 2 is a mix of "It is raining" (present continuous) and "It has been raining" (present perfect continuous).

I hope that helps!

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Mohammad00089007 on Mon, 21/02/2022 - 13:32

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Greetings!
Could you please help me?
Which of the two sentences is correct?
-'Scientists announced the launch of the new drug they had been developing for over 3 years.'
-'Scientists announced the launch of the new drug they have been developing for over 3 years.'

Hi Mohammad00089007,

I would choose the first one. In the second one, 'have been developing' would be OK if the first verb is in present perfect too (i.e., 'Scientists have announced ...'), or if a specific time is mentioned (e.g. 'This morning, scientists announced ...').

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Natasa Tanasa on Thu, 12/08/2021 - 15:23

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Hello everyone, Is this correct to say: "While we were waiting we were doing crosswords" or "While we were waiting we did crosswords" Thank you in advance!

Hello Natasa Tanasa,

Both forms are possible here; it's really a question of the broader context and the speaker's intention.

The simple form (did) would be used if you wanted to suggest that the crosswords were finished, while the continuous form does not imply this (but does not preclude it either). Other than that difference it depends what you want to emphasise: the activity (it was long and boring, for example) or the result (we finished four crosswords!).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 22/06/2021 - 09:55

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Hello Team. Could you tell me the difference between the past simple and the past continuous in the following sentence? I think "past simple" is wrong here. 1- I didn't believe that most famous people were doing hard jobs all their childhood. 2- I didn't believe that most famous people did hard jobs all their childhood. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I think both forms are possible here and there is very little difference in meaning. The continuous form emphasises that the state or situation is temporary and I think it sounds a little better, but the reference to childhood already makes this point clear so I think either form is possible.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hosseinpour on Fri, 30/04/2021 - 09:24

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Hello dear team, the matter has already been brought to the attention of the parents. Is the position of "already" right? Or should it go after been? Thanks a lot

Hello Hosseinpour,

You've put the adverb in the correct place -- well done!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nevı on Fri, 19/03/2021 - 11:09

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Hi great team, I am confused about the'-ing clause' For instance, when I say 1)''I see him sitting on the sofa.'' A website says (-sitting on the sofa) is 'a -ing clause'. But I learnt that it is a participle clause. Which one is true? ,teacher. Could you please explain difference to me? After asking a question, I want to thank all our helpful teachers and our moderator for helping us to learn English.I am very grateful to have that opportunity.

Hi Nevı,

Both are true! There are two types of participle clauses:

  1. Present participle clauses (using the -ing verb form)
  2. Past participle clauses (using the -ed verb form).

Your example is the first type. You can read more about participle clauses on this page. I hope it helps!

We're happy to read your kind comments :) Thank you for visiting our site.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for page link teacher. So I understand that '-ing' clause involve gerund clauses and present participle clauses. For example, -I like walking my dog. walking my dog is -ing ( gerund) clause. -I see him sitting on the sofa. sitting on the sofa is -ing(participle) clause. Teacher,Do I understand correctly? Thanks a lot.
Thanks a lot teacher, I know I asked 2 questions. But I really want to learn that topic well and that is my last question probably :). While I was going over information about '- ing clauses' , I just saw one site says "A clause is a group of words which contains a verb."(Collins Dict.) Other site says(Longman dict) "Group of words that contains a subject and a verb." Which one is true, teacher? Could you please explain me why? Best wishes!

Hi Nevı,

No worries :) Both are true, actually. A clause always has a verb in it, and a verb has a subject. But, the subject isn't always stated in the clause, e.g.: 

  • Waiting for Ellie, I made some tea. ('Waiting for Ellie' = present participle clause; subject is not stated)
  • While I was waiting for Ellie, I made some tea. ('While I was waiting for Ellie' = clause with subject and verb)

The first example is a type of clause called a non-finite clause (i.e. a clause with a verb in the infinitive, participle or gerund form). With non-finite clauses, the subject is often not stated.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Nevı on Mon, 22/03/2021 - 09:59

In reply to by Jonathan R

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Thanks a lot, teacher. I learnt lots of things from your answers . And I want to sum up your last massage to ask you If I understand correctly; Non-finite clauses(gerund, participle infinitive and - to infinitive clauses usually has no stated subject. For instance ; -I let him eat ice cream. (eat ice cream is infinitive clause and subject is not stated.Because subject is obviously him) -I want to play football. (to play football is -to infinitive clause and subject is not stated. Because subject is obviously me) Best wishes, teacher Jonathan.I am very grateful.

Submitted by Gendeng on Tue, 16/03/2021 - 07:43

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How have you been? Or how are you? In what situation do we use "how have you been"? thanks

Hello Gendeng,

'you have been' is the present perfect and 'are' is the present simple. In this case, the present perfect refers to a period of time beginning at some point in the past up until now. When this period began may be clear from the context, or it may be that the speaker asks it casually. Much of time, it's as if the question were 'How have you been lately?' or 'How have you been since I last saw you?'

The present simple form generally refers more to the present and less to the recent past.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Plokonyo on Mon, 22/02/2021 - 11:06

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Hello everybody. When someone says 'how are you', the response is 'I have been very well' or 'I'm very well'?

Hello again Plokonyo,

There are many ways to respond, but in general, the second one is better.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hatchaitchi88 on Fri, 08/01/2021 - 11:46

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I had been watching TV all day( i mean yesterday) or I was watching TV all day. In grammar book "Oxford Practice Grammar" i saw example "We were working all afternoon"( why there isn't had been working?) I mean, that there is duration like all afternoon or all day.

Hello Hatchaitchi88,

The forms you are asking about here are past continuous (was watching/were working) and past perfect continuous (had been watching/had been working). Duration is not an issue in choosing between these.

 

We use the past perfect when we have two past time references and want to emphasises that (1) one action preceded the other and (2) the earlier action had an influence on the later action in some way.

 

Your examples are isolated without any context, so there is no reason to use the past perfect. If there were a context including a second past action then the past perfect might be possible, but that would depend on the two actions and their relationship.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhom on Sat, 17/10/2020 - 11:42

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Hello, teachers Could you please tell me the differences among the four sentences: 1. My car wouldn't start this morning, so I was late. 2. My car wasn't starting this morning, so I was late 3. My car didn't start this morning ,so I was late. 4. My car hadn't started this morning, so I was late. I really appreciate your clarification. Best Wish

Hello Sokhom,

We sometimes talk about machines as if they were people and have a will of their own. This is the use of wouldn't start in the first sentence; it has a similar meaning to refused to start.

The third sentence describes two actions in the past which form a sequence.

The action of not starting is a single completed action, so there is no reason to use the continuous form (the second sentence) here. The action is not repeated or interrupted.

The fourth sentence is inconsistent as 'this morning' has a present time reference, while the past perfect would indicate a past time reference. You could use the past perfect if you were looking back from a later date and telling the story: My car hadn't started so I was late that morning and my boss was angry.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by OlaIELTS on Thu, 17/09/2020 - 23:21

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The tip is really enormous. Thanks.

Submitted by IsabelTim_123 on Fri, 11/09/2020 - 12:38

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They heard the announcement that the mayor was resigning. - Why is the continuous tense used here? Many thanks.

Hello IsabelTim_123,

The past continuous and past simple are often used together in this way. The past simple refers to a past finished event (it only takes a short time to hear an announcement) and the past continuous is used to speak about the situation in progress at the time -- English grammars often refer to this as the 'background'. 

Without the context, it's not completely clear if the mayor had already resigned or not, but in general I'd understand that she had not resigned yet. If the mayor had already resigned, the speaker would probably have said 'had resigned' or 'resigned'.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by LubNko525 on Fri, 04/09/2020 - 18:20

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The bank will be starting a recruitment drive if it receives head office approval Is 'will start' possible here? She always cycled to work unless it was raining Is 'it rained' possible here? Thanks in advance

Hello LubNko525,

Yes, those are both possible, though whether they'd be better or not depends on the context.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Lucas_xpp on Wed, 02/09/2020 - 17:53

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Q: You look tired. A: Yes, I was cycling from ten this morning until five o’clock. What is it different from "I cycled..."? Thanks English Team.

Hello Lucas_xpp,

It's really a question of emphasis. Both forms are possible here.

 

The simple form (cycled) emphasises the action in its entirety. You might use this if you want to focus on your achievement - how far you cycled.

 

The continuous form (was cycling) emphasises the activity. You might use this if you want to focus on the duration of the activity, or how demanding it was.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 18/10/2019 - 17:03

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Hello. Could you please help me? Is the following sentence correct using the past continuous? Can we use the past continuous to express repeated actions or a habit in the past? - He was going to the club every day when he was on holiday. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

For something which was a normal activity like this we generally use a simple form:

He went to the club...

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by InmaLD on Fri, 04/10/2019 - 08:00

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" - for something happening before and after another action:" Why happening and not happens"

Hello InmaLD

That is a reduced relative clause. The full form is 'for something that happens before and after another action'. Sometimes we reduce relative clauses such as this one using an '-ing' form.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Montri on Sun, 23/06/2019 - 12:37

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What is the difference for the following sentense? -Throwing shade isn't going to make you shine. -Throwing shade doesn't make you shine. Thank you.