Consider the difference between the following sentences: (33a) Cerise worked efficiently (33b) Cerise was working efficiently Sentence 33a, which uses the simple past tense, refers in general to a completed action. Sentence 33b refers to the action as being in progress at some particular time. The construction illustrated in 33b is known as the progressive. It is formed with a form of the verb BE and a form of verb ending in -ing. Although some schoolbook grammars call this construction a tense, that label is not accurate. Notice that 33a and 33b do not make a distinction in the time of the event. They could well describe the same action. The sentences differ in how they view the action’s internal structure, a feature of language known as aspectuality. So instead of speaking of a "progressive tense," we will talk of a "progressive aspect."

Aspect and Aspectuality

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Present Participles

A form of the verb ending in -ing is traditionally called a present participle, or occasionally an -ing participle. Although we will use the traditional term, note that "present" does not mean that the participle has a tense of its own. Phrases formed with present participles are not limited to appearing in present-tense sequences: (36) Reaching the summit of the mountain, Bob let out a shout of triumph. In the example above, the act of reaching the summit does not occur in the present. It occurs simultaneously with the action of shouting, which is in the past tense. To form a present participle, all you need to do is take the base form of the verb and add –ing: spend + -ing = spending be + -ing = being make + -ing = making As the final example shows, there may be a minor spelling change, but that should not obscure the basic regularity of the whole process. Present participles are completely regular in English. Every verb forms it exactly the same way, even the so-called irregular ones. Although every present participle ends in -ing, not every word that ends in -ing is a present participle: (37) The painting on the wall is a copy of a Rembrandt. (Noun) (38) The host was charming to her guests. (Adjective) (39) Veronica was charming her guests. (Participle) While painting in the first sentence is clearly a noun (among other things, it follows a determiner), the other two may need glossing. In the second sentence, charming is an adjective. It denotes a quality of the host, and thus the verb is simply was. In the final example, Veronica is doing something to her audience; i.e., charm is a transitive verb. Notice that while you can add the degree adverb very to the adjective in (38), you cannot do so to the participle in (39): (38b) The host was very charming to her guests. (39b) *Veronica was very charming her guests.

Meaning and Use of the Progressive

The progressive is most commonly used to indicate a temporary condition, namely that: 1. the event takes time to occur, rather than happening all at once; 2. the event lasts for a limited time. With some verbs, the progressive shows that the event is not necessarily complete: (40) Simple past: I read Margaret Atwood's latest novel yesterday. (41) Past progressive: I was reading Margaret Atwood's latest novel yesterday. Because progressives specify a block of time, they are frequently used for actions that overlap some other point in time: (42) When Mark came home he found that his girlfriend was throwing all his belongings out of the window. Because the simple present often implies habitual action, the present progressive is typically used to refer to an individual event that has a present time referent: (43a) What does Mark do over there in the corner? (43b) What is Mark doing over there in the corner? Sentence 43a only makes sense if Mark performs some action regularly in the corner. For this reason, a number of ESL textbooks call the present progressive the "present tense," a potential source of confusion for ESL learners. Because the progressive stresses a temporary state, it generally cannot be used with verbs that describe a permanent quality or state of being: (44) *He is knowing English very well. (45) *She is being from Guatemala. (46) *Norma is having red hair. The progressive can be used with some state verbs to imply a temporary state. In the a-versions of the sentences below, the situation is permanent, where the b-version implies that the state has a finite duration. Simple present: (47a) The Lees live in Kwangju. (48a) Bart is a brat. Present progressive: (47b) The Lees are living in Kwangju this summer. (48b) Bart is being a brat.