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

written by: Gillian Hendrie • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

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

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    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.

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    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.
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    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...?"

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

    Are you having fun yet?