Present Simple or Present Continuous

To help to get this right in active spoken English, we can say that the present continuous is used for temporary things, and the present simple is used for things which are always or generally true.  This general rule actually works for everything you need when talking about the present: facts, things happening now, habits, continuing events:

Here are some further examples to show this in action:

  • Continuing events

One mistake that English learners sometimes make is that they think that you have to be currently doing something right now to use the present continuous.  This is not the case.  Present continuous can be used to describe something that is temporary, even if you are not in the middle of that action right now.

"I oversee all processes in the company. It is a big responsibility"  

(permanent, always true)

"I am overseeing the department while the boss is on holiday" 

(temporary)

"I work as a full-time tour guide. It is a really fulfilling career" 

(permanent, always true)

"I am working as a tour guide just for the summer" 

(temporary)

"I live in Madrid.  My family are from here, and we have just bought a house here" 

(permanent, always true)

"I am living in Madrid.  I am a student here and I have nearly finished my course" 

(temporary)

  • Habits

English learners sometimes think that when we talk about habits and repeating events we must use present simple.  This is not the case.  Habits also follow the same rule as above:

"I go swimming every day. It is my hobby" 

(permanent, always true)

"I am going swimming every day because I am trying to lose weight" 

(temporary)

  • Facts

"The earth rotates around the sun" 

(permanent, always true)

(no continuous form here because all facts are permanent and not temporary)

Another common mistake from English learners, even advanced learners, is that they sometimes forget to use present continuous to talk about things happening now. 

"The earth rotates around the sun"

(permanent, always true)

"I can't call you now because I am sitting in a meeting"  

(temporary)

This rule also works when we talk about trends.  Most trends are only temporary so we use present continuous. When we describe graphs and charts, we also mainly use present continuous for this reason.  

One classic mistake that English learners make when they talk about trends or graphs is that they sometimes use present simple when they want to use present continuous. 

Below is what graphs look like when you use present continuous vs. present simple:

Exceptions: (a small number of verbs that are not used in the continuous)

Of course there are always some exceptions to any rule. Certain verbs cannot be used in the continuous form.  The verbs which are never in the continuous form are listed below.  With any other verbs you can be pretty sure that if you follow the temporary/permanent rule above, you will actually still be correct. Verbs which cannot be used in the continuous form:

Verbs of containing - contain / include

"This email contains some very important information"

Verbs of possession - have / own 

"Our company has 3 offices in Beijing" 

"I own the company"

Verbs of opinion - I think that.. / I believe that.. / I feel that..

"I believe that the company is performing very well"

Verbs of the senses - smells / sounds / tastes

"The presentation sounds good"

All other verbs, such as 'verbs of emotion' or 'performative verbs', can pretty much always be used in the continuous form when they are describing situations that are only temporary.