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The Formation and Use of the Progressive Aspect in English

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 12/2/2013

The progressive aspect is a verb form that expresses incomplete or ongoing actions or states at a specific time. This article explains the formation and use of the progressive aspect of verbs in both the present tense and the past tense in English.

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    Forming the Progressive Aspect

    All forms of the progressive aspect in English include some form of the verb be followed by a present participle. Progressive aspect verb phrases in the passive voice all include being, the present participle of be, after the initial be followed by a past participle. The following verb chart outlines the verb phrase patterns for the progressive aspect:

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    For example:

    • The octopus is squirting ink. (active present progressive)
    • The octopus was squirting ink. (active past progressive)
    • Ink is being squirted by the octopus. (passive present progressive)
    • Ink was being squirted by the octopus. (passive past progressive)
    • Some scientists are eating green goo. (active present progressive)
    • Some scientists were eating green goo. (active past progressive)
    • Green goo is being eaten by some scientists. (passive present progressive)
    • Green goo was being eaten by some scientists. (passive past progressive)

    Remember that the forms of the verb to be is irregular in all forms of the simple present tense (am, is, are) and the simple past tense (was, were). For a list of some irregular past participles in English, please download the printable supplement English Irregular Verbs: Simple Past Tense and Past Participles.

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    Using the Present Progressive Aspect

    The present progressive aspect expresses an incomplete or ongoing action or state. The incomplete or ongoing action or state began in the past, occurs in the present, and continues into the future. Take for example the following two sentences:

    1. My dog learns new commands from my husband. (simple present)
    2. My dog is learning new commands from my husband. (present progressive)

    The first sentence My dog learns new commands from my husband expresses an action that is either a habit or routine or a general fact or truth; in general, my dog learns the new commands that my husband teaches him. The second sentence My dog is learning new commands from my husband expresses an ongoing action that had begun in the past, is continuing in the present, and will continue into the future; my dog began learning the new commands that my husband is teaching him in the past, is still learning the new commands in the present, and will continue to learn those commands in the future.

    The progressive present aspect is most often used in sentences that express actions happening now, extended actions that are in progress, actions happening in the near future, repetitive and irritating actions, and actions occurring for a limited time. For example:

    • His neighbor is mowing the lawn. (happening now)
    • I am studying the English verb system. (extended and in progress)
    • My coworkers are taking the train on Monday. (near future)
    • Her roommate is always blasting terrible music. (repetitive and irritating)
    • Your son is staying with your brother this weekend. (limited time)

    Present progressive sentences can contain only adverbials that express times in the present or future such as now, today, tomorrow, next week, and this month. Present progressive sentences cannot contain adverbials that express times in the past. For example:

    • Our supervisor is dressing like a monkey tomorrow. (correct)
    • *Our supervisor is dressing like a monkey yesterday. (incorrect)
    • The maid is cleaning the bathroom next week. (correct)
    • My baby is throwing up right now. (correct)
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    The past progressive aspect also expresses an incomplete or ongoing action or state. The incomplete or ongoing action or state began, continued, and ended in the past but over a longer period of time than the completed actions expressed by the simple past tense. Take for example the following two sentences:

    1. The phone rang when the woman entered her office. (simple past)
    2. The phone was ringing when the woman entered her office. (past progressive)

    The first sentence The phone rang when the woman entered her office expresses two separate events: the phone rang and the woman entered her office. The phone ringing and the woman entering her office just happened to occur simultaneously. The second sentence The phone was ringing when the woman entered her office also expresses the two events of the phone ringing and the woman entering her office. However, the use of the past progressive in the second sentence indicates that the phone was ringing before and while the woman entered the office.

    The progressive past aspect is most often used in sentences that express past actions that progressed in time in the past, that ended from an interruption including specific times, that occurred simultaneously, that describe the atmosphere, and that are repetitive and irritating. For example:

    • The boys were playing football all day yesterday. (progressed in time)
    • She was cooking dinner when the doorbell rang. (interruption)
    • My puppy was barking while my cat was meowing. (simultaneous)
    • When the teacher entered the classroom, all the students were studying. (atmosphere)
    • The neighbors were always mowing the lawn early in the morning. (repetitive and irritating)

    Past progressive sentences can contain only adverbials that express times in the past or immediate present such as yesterday, today, last week, and the other morning or that express past or simultaneous events. Past progressive sentences cannot contain adverbials that express times in the future. For example:

    • Her toddler was talking all day yesterday. (correct)
    • *Her toddler was talking all day tomorrow. (incorrect)
    • The old woman was feeling ill last week. (correct)
    • He was rollerblading when he fell down. (correct)

    Notice that adverb clauses that begin with the subordinating conjunction while usually include past progressive verbs and adverb clauses that begin with the subordinating conjunction when usually include simple past verbs.

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