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A Brief Guide on How to Use Non-Continuous English Verbs in the Present Tense

By Gillian Hendrie

What's the present continuous tense for, and when can you NOT use it?

Whether you're a learner of English or an ESL/EFL teacher, there are times when we can get confused by those non-continuous verbs, or how to explain their use. Although by no means comprehensive, this article seeks to set out a few groundrules.

Continuous verbs

These are the -ing forms of verbs, used for a specific event or plan at a specific time (whether mentioned or not), e.g.

  • I am going to school tomorrow.
  • He is playing the piano now

Compare those with the simple present forms used for habits, e.g.

  • I go to school every day.
  • He plays piano at the new jazz bar.

Non-continuous verbs

As usual in English there are exceptions to the -ing usage. Some verbs cannot be used in the continuous form, or can only be used this way with a "special" meaning.

These include some very commonly used verbs such as: remember; forget; have; verbs of emotion such as love (except as used in a particular hamburger chain's commercial!), hate; the verbs of the five senses; consist; contain; want; need.

Even though you are doing it right now, you cannot normally say "I am remembering......". Instead, say, "I remember ...".

Never say, "Are you wanting...?" but, "Do you want...?"

Special uses

The verb "have" in its basic meaning of "to own" cannot be used continuously

  • I am having two sisters. BAD!
  • She is having a new car. BAD!

However, when it is used for its many other meanings, there is no problem in using "having":

  • She is having (= giving birth to) her baby now.
  • They will be having (= eating) dinner together tomorrow night.
  • I'm having (= "taking"/making use of) a bath later. etc.

Verbs of sense

These have only non-continuous forms when used as linking verbs, explaining what our senses convey to us.

  • It looks pink.
  • That smells awful!
  • Her singing sounds great.
  • This cake tastes wonderful.
  • The carpet feels rough.

When we use these as active verbs, however, continuous forms are again acceptable:

  • She is looking at me very strangely.
  • He was smelling the rose petals. etc.

Practice

Listen carefully to what people say. Practice the different versions of the verbs of sense until it becomes second nature.

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