Teaching Continuous tenses

By Alex Case

Students are sometimes shocked at the end of an Intermediate or Upper Intermediate textbook to find that there is yet another tense waiting for them there – often the Future Continuous, but perhaps instead the infamous Past Perfect Continuous or even the Future Perfect Continuous. The structure of will + be + ing should be fairly straightforward for them if they know be + ing of the Present Continuous, and ditto for had + been + ing if they know have + been + ing from the Present Perfect Continuous. It must therefore be the meaning that is producing the panic or groans.

Luckily for those panicking students, the meanings of those more unusual Continuous tenses will actually turn out to be just as familiar as the structures if you explain them in the right way and show them the links in meaning to tenses they already know. For example, the Future Continuous is basically the Present Continuous shifted into the future and the Past Perfect Continuous is just like the Present Perfect Continuous but with a past point in time as the reference point. In fact, all Continuous tenses share a common set of meanings. These meanings might not be quite as easy to explain as the structure be + ing, but are every bit as generalisable and useful. In fact, I once read a suggestion that there is no such thing as tenses but just the Simple, Continuous and Perfect aspects – which should always be taught as such. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but introducing the similarities to students who already know a few Continuous tenses can turn what seemed like another complication into a simplification of all that has gone before. The similarities also suggest that native speakers must subconsciously group all Continuous tenses together, so hopefully we can help our students do the same.

A point in time

The simplest way of explaining the Present Continuous is to say that is often used to mean “now” or “at the moment”, and in fact is often used with those time expressions, for example in the sentence “I’m from the UK but at the moment I’m studying French in Paris”. This shows the contrast with the Present Simple, which is often used to mean a repeated habit with expressions like “sometimes”, “usually” and “once a week”.

You can also show the difference between the Present Simple and Present Continuous with a time line. If we draw time as the horizontal axis with “now” as a vertical dotted line halfway along it, the Present Continuous is usually shown as a horizontal wavy line that starts a little way before now, intersects with it, and probably continues some way into the future. The Present Simple, in contrast, is just shown as a series of crosses along the horizontal axis to represent a repeated action. For example, “I’m feeling relaxed because I’m smoking a cigarette” is an action that started some undetermined short time in the past and will probably continue for another short while, with the focus of the action being on the vertical line that represents now. “I smoke 30 cigarettes a day”, by contrast, will be 30 separate actions in each 24 hour period, stretching some way into the past and future and with a single cigarette not necessarily intersecting with the vertical line that represents “now”.

If we take that Present Continuous timeline and move it left along the horizontal axis so that its focus is no longer on the present, we have created a Past Continuous timeline. For example, the timeline for “I am wearing a tie” is instantly converted into “I was wearing a tie” just by shifting it into the past. Move the same timeline to the right and we have “I will be wearing a tie”. This shows the similarity between the three tenses, and this magical timeline shifting trick is usually enough to convince students that they can in fact cope with these new tenses, because they aren’t so new after all.

The difference between the Present Continuous tense and the other two is that the Present Continuous tense is always focussed on “now”, whereas the Past and Future Continuous could focus on any past or future point. Because of that, the bare sentences “I was wearing a tie” and “I will be wearing a tie” are unlikely to make sense and are more likely to be “I must have been on my way to work when it happened because I was wearing a tie” and “I’ve finally accepted an office job, so the next time you see me I will be wearing a tie”.

Showing these similarities to and differences with the Present Continuous also helps show the differences between the Past Continuous and Future Continuous and their Simple equivalents. For example, “I told him the news” is a fairly likely sentence but “I was telling him the news” is an unusual one. This is because we don’t need to know the exact time in the first one but we do in the latter case. For that reason, the second needs to be “I was telling him the news when my wife made a ‘zip it’ gesture towards me and so I quickly changed subject”. In other words, we need to know what the point in time is with the Continuous tense, and we often have to mention it in the same sentence.

In progress

Another common way of explaining Continuous tenses is to say that they are used to talk about something in progress. In fact, students might already be familiar with the name “Present Progressive” as an alternative to “Present Continuous”, even if they have never thought about what the word “Progressive” means. I find this explanation easiest to illustrate with the Past Continuous, and the explanation can then be shifted in time to show that it also works for Present Continuous and Future Continuous.

Give students an example of the Past Continuous, e.g. “I was walking hand in hand with my mistress when my wife got out of her car in front of us”. Ask students when I started walking hand in hand with my mistress, to which the answer should be “Before your wife got out of her car”. Then ask them if I carried on holding my mistress’s hand. The answer is that we don’t know, but probably not! This can be represented on a timeline by a swiggly line for walking hand in hand, with a cross on it for getting out of the car and the swiggly line then becoming dotted to show the uncertainty about whether it continues or not.

This example can be used to contrast the Past Continuous with the Past Simple and Past Perfect. If the sentence is “I held my mistress’s hand when my wife got out of her car in front of us”, that means that I held my mistress’s hand after my wife got out of the car (perhaps to deliberately annoy my wife!) If I say “I had kissed my mistress when my wife got out of her car in front of us”, that means that I had already finished kissing, and so maybe that it was a close escape.

Action versus result

If students truly understand the Present Perfect Continuous, they can easily transfer that to the Past Perfect Continuous and Future Perfect Continuous. As these two tenses are very rare and the Present Perfect Continuous is notoriously difficult anyway, many people would suggest not bothering! I prefer to see a quick review of Perfect Continuous tenses as a chance to clear up the Present Perfect Continuous once and for all.

People sometimes try using the explanation above about being in progress for the Present Perfect Continuous, but it doesn’t quite work. For example, if you say “I have run half the race so far” and “It seems like I’ve been running for days” we could be talking about the exact same marathon, and in both cases it isn’t finished. A better explanation is that in the first example the Present Perfect (Simple) emphasises the result (half completed), whereas there isn’t necessarily any result or achievement from running for hours and so the emphasis when we use the Present Perfect Continuous is on the action. This is why “How many…?” and “How much…?” questions are often Present Perfect Simple and “How long…?” questions are often Present Perfect Continuous. If we were to ask “How many books have you been writing?” that wouldn’t mean a result, and so perhaps all the books have been abandoned halfway through or I have been writing them concurrently.

The exact same explanations work for the Future and Past Perfect Continuous tenses. If I say “I will have worked as a CEO by 2050”, that is something I see as an achievement. If I say “I will have been working as a CEO by 2050”, that is more likely to go with a time expression to make a sentence like “I will have been working as a CEO for at least five years by 2050”.

This meaning of Continuous tenses doesn’t seem to tie in with the explanations of the Present Continuous etc above, but it is possible to think of situations where both kinds of Continuous tenses naturally go together. For example, if students say “I am living with my godparents at the moment”, a natural reaction is to ask “Really? That’s unusual. How long have you been living with them?”

Other future uses of Continuous tenses

There is one use of the Future Continuous that doesn’t seem to fit in with the system that I have explained above. If we say “One day I will be sitting in my Rolls Royce drinking champagne”, it means basically the same as “One day I will sit in my Rolls Royce and drink champagne”, but emphasises how sure you are that it will happen. Although the connection is not obvious, it is possible to link this to the meanings above. One way of looking at it is that the person saying “One day I will be sitting…” is picturing him or herself in that Rolls Royce in the process of sipping that bubbly, in which case it is basically the same as the Present Continuous or Past Continuous being used to explain actions in progress when a photo was taken.

A common use of the Future Continuous is to politely decline invitations, e.g. “I’m sorry, but I’ll be driving to Seoul at that time”. This is more polite than saying “I will drive to Seoul” as it emphasises the action being in progress at the exact time that they are inviting you to do something. It also makes that thing sound very sure and therefore unavoidable. This use therefore links together the two seemingly separate meanings of Future Continuous for a point in time and Future Continuous to show certainty.

The other common tense to decline invitations is the Present Continuous for future arrangements, e.g. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m taking my girlfriend out to a fancy restaurant to propose to her”. Some people use the certainty explanation that I’ve used for the Future Continuous above to explain the difference between Present Continuous for arrangements, “going to” for plans, and “will” for predictions. I don’t think this is a very useful explanation as the certainty of the event happening depends on how reliable the person who I have made arrangements with is (Present Continuous), how good I am at keeping New Year’s Resolutions (going to), or how good I am at making predictions (will).

This use of the Present Continuous therefore doesn’t really tie in with the other explanations in this article. I don’t tend to find that this is a problem, as I can’t really imagine how there could be (even more) future and past versions of Present Continuous for future arrangements, making a link to meanings of the Past Continuous and Future Continuous unnecessary. If students insist on an explanation, you could say that we use a Present tense for arrangements because the definition of an arrangement (as opposed to a plan) is that something has already been done with someone else, e.g. you have bought a ticket that is now in your wallet or you have phoned someone to fix a time that you now have written in your diary.

Even more often

Another specific and less common use of the Present Continuous is to talk about things that people do all the time, especially complaining about annoying habits in sentences like “He’s always leaving his toys where I can step on them”. In this case, you can use the Past Continuous to talk about past annoyances such as “He was always bringing girls back to our shared dorm room” in exactly the same way.

Action and state verbs

In all the examples above, there are some verbs that cannot be used in the Continuous form in any tense and so we have to say “How long have you wanted to change gender?” even though we would say “How long have you been waiting for the operation?” Again, this could be seen as yet another complication when doing the Present Perfect Continuous, or as an opportunity to revise a fairly easy point that they probably first did back when they were tackling the Present Continuous for the first time. I usually do a lesson on state and action verbs with Continuous tenses they already know before moving onto the new tense or a review of Continuous tenses.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net November 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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