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Introducing the most confusing grammar error nearly EVERY learner of English makes when they first meet someone..

Greetings and basic conversation are some of the first things you learn in any new language. And usually, learners have no problem with the basics of conversation when they first meet somebody.  But due to English’s confusing system of tenses, there seems to be one error which most English learners still make, even advanced learners, and it causes me a lot of confusion!

As someone who lives in a different country to my home country, one of the first things people want to know is how long I have been living in my current country, the Czech Republic.

So one of the first questions that people ask is

‘How long are you living here in the Czech Republic?’

The present continuous verb tense in this sentence is actually wrong. Whenever you use the question ‘how long’ you should use present perfect or present perfect continuous, so the correct sentence should be:

‘How long have you been living in the Czech Republic?’

The same mistake is often made in sentences using ‘for’ and ‘since’, in sentences where learners talk about how long they have been living or working somewhere:

‘I am living in Australia for 3 years’

‘I am playing tennis since 2005′

Both of these sentences using the present continuous are wrong, and should be written with the present perfect continuous like this:

‘I have been living in Australia for 3 years’

‘I have been playing tennis since 2005′

In many languages there is no difference between these two different tenses in English, and if you look at the diagrams below you can see that the present continuous and present perfect continuous really mean the same thing, that is why people make mistakes with it.  The only difference is in the second diagram you can see that there is some reference to the past:

‘I am working in London’

blog post present perfect imGES-page-001 (2)

 

‘I have been working in London since 2010′

blog post present perfect imGES-page-001 (2)

 

So if the sentences really mean the same thing then why is it wrong to say something like ‘I am living in London for 5 years’?

The reason why this is so confusing, then, is because if you just use present continuous it sounds like you are talking about the future!

‘How long are you staying in Spain?’  (How long into the future are you planning to stay in Spain)

‘How long have you been staying in Spain?’  (How far back in the past have you been staying in Spain)

It sounds like we are talking about the future because in English we use present continuous to talk about future plans.  This is the key to this post and why it is important to get the tense right.  If you use the wrong tense you can completely change the meaning of the sentence or the question.

So, back to the original sentence, when people ask me ’How long are you living in the Czech Republic?’ I always think that they are asking me how long I am planning to stay there in the future!

This is the same for all sentences with for, since  or how long, here are some more examples:

‘I have been working here for 3 years’

blog post present perfect imGES-page-001 (3)

 

‘I am working here for 3 years’

blog post present perfect imGES-page-001 (3)

 Another confusing example is this situation, imagine you are going running with a friend, the 2 sentences below mean very different things:

‘How long are we running for?’ means how long do you plan that we continue running

‘How long have we been running for?’ means for how long have we been running until now

The key, then, is to remember to use present perfect continuous when you use for. since or how long, otherwise you are completely changing the meaning! It is good to get it right because these sentences with for, since and how long are some of the first sentences that you say when you first meet somebody.

For sentences with for, since and how long in the past, you can also use the present perfect simple:

‘How long have you lived here?’ and ‘How long have you been living here’ are both OK, but they can have very slightly different meanings. For more information about the differences in these meanings and the differences between the present perfect and present perfect continuous click here.

For more information about the present continuous tense click here.

If you would like to have any of these words explained further, or if you would like to see some more examples, 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! Check out more useful business English grammar right here!

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 David Cox

 Fluency Space

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

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