The biggest mistake English learners make with tenses, and what it sounds like when they make it!

One of the main problems non-native speakers have with English tenses is that they use the present simple too much, when they should use the present continuous.  Unfortunately using these the wrong way round can give your sentence a completely different meaning.  Here are 2 common problems that students have when they use present simple when they should use present continuous:

1. If you talk about any action, yes any action,  the present simple makes you sound like you do it all the time

If you are talking about a current activity that you are doing, or a current project that you are working on until it is finished, we always use the present continuous to talk about it, because it will come to an end.  For example, if you are currently looking for jobs your sentence should be ‘I am looking for jobs’. Non-native speakers sometimes use sentences like:

‘I look for jobs’

If you use the present simple here it sounds like you do it all the time, with no end!  This sounds like it is either your job or your hobby.  Another example, if you are currently designing a new website for your company some non-native speakers say ‘we design the website for our company’,  which sounds like it is your personal job.

‘we design the website for our company’ - It is our permanent job to design websites for the company

‘We are designing the website for our company’ - We currently have a project to design the website for the company

This also sounds strange if you are in the process of doing something right now.  For example if you are watching the television and you say ‘I watch television’.  Or if you are eating your dinner and someone calls you and you say ‘I’m sorry I can’t speak at the moment because I eat my dinner’.  This sentence says that you can’t speak at the moment because you always eat your dinner!

So remember with any action  that you do, if you use it in the present simple it means that you do it all the time as a habit.

2.If you talk about any changes, it sounds like it happens again and again

Ok so this is a similar idea to the idea before, but if you want to talk about something increasing / decreasing, changing, you should always use the present continuous.  An example would be something like ‘profits are rising’

blog present simple pic-page-001

As you can see here profits are rising




If you use the present simple and say the sentence ‘profits rise’ it sounds like profits rise once, then they stop, then they rise again on a separate occasion:

blag present simple charts-page-001

This sentence only works if you want to say something like: ‘profits rise whenever we have a sale’, because they rise, then they stop, then they rise again on a separate occasion:

                          sale             sale             sale               sale                sale

blag present simple charts-page-001


3.  The present simple can make temporary problems sound permanent

This one can cause some quite funny misunderstandings.

If you work in a cafe which has free Wifi, sometimes the Wifi may have some problems and may not work properly.  In this situation you should say ‘sorry, our wifi isn’t working today’.  If you just use the present simple here

‘sorry our Wifi doesn’t work’

it sounds like your wifi never has worked and never will work in the future.  This could cause some very angry customers, especially if you advertise free Wifi!

Other possible examples are:

‘I struggle to fix the car’, which means the car always has problems and you always struggle to fix the car.  Here you should say ’I am struggling to fix the car’, which means the car has a problem and you are stuggling to fix it currently.

‘I find my work quite difficult’, which means you generally find any work difficult, when you should say ‘I am finding work quite difficult’, which means you are finding it difficult only currently.

This can be especially funny in a situation where, for example your computer isn’t working and you are trying to fix it.  In this situation if you say: ‘my computer doesn’t work’ again it means that your computer has never worked and never will work, which will make your listener want to ask why are you trying to fix it!

If you are still unsure with this one, if you say something like ‘at the moment’ or any phrase which shows that the problem is temporary, then you will still be understood by a native speaker even if you get the wrong tense.

For more information about the present simple and present continuous sentences, feel free to visit these sections of our website: present simple, present continuous, present simple or present continuous

If you would like to have any any further example sentences, feel free to email me at david@fluencyspace.com, or message me on Skype at live:fluencyspace! Also if you have any other questions about English I’m happy to answer your emails or I will write a post about it, keep the emails coming!


 David Cox

 Fluency Space

 Make the world your fluency space. Business English for career and life success

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