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Conquering Present/Past Indicative and Progressive Verb Traps

written by: Audrey Alleyne • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 11/29/2013

Many ESL students are confused about when they should use the Present and Past Indicative Tenses, or the Progressive Tenses in English. The following article aims to explain these tricky verb forms. It also provides some practice exercises and answers.

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    The Tenses

    The Present Tense in English has three forms. A French, German or Spanish speaking student of English may simply say “Je parle" English Language Arts or “Ich spreche" or “Yo hablo" to express the English “I speak." Their one verb also expresses exactly what confounds them; that is, when the English speaking person says “I am speaking" and “I do speak." To express the emphatic idea of the word “do," they simply add another word. For example, a French person would say “Je comprends bien" to express “I do understand."

    The negative form of the Present Tense also presents problems, and the Spanish speaker, for example, very often winds up saying “I no understand" instead of “I do not (don’t) understand"; or “I no want" instead of “I do not (don’t ) want."

    The Simple Past Tense and the Past Progressive both pose their share of difficulty as well. “I walked" is the Simple Past, but it becomes “I was walking" in the Progressive.

    Let’s try to unravel the mystery. Let’s start with the Present Tense.

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    The Present Tense

    When something happens ona regular basis, the Present Tense is used. For example “I play the piano." “The sun sets in the west."

    Progressive form:

    The “-ing" form of the verb is referred to as the Present Progressive Tense. It is used to express that something is happening, or is in progress at the present moment in time. For example: “I am playing the piano (right now)." “You are looking at me, while I’m playing the piano;" but “You come every Saturday to see me when I play the piano."

    The form of the verb “to be" willbe used to ask a question about something in progress. For example if someone wanted to ask what am I doing, they would ask “What are you doing" or if they saw me cooking, they could say “I smell fish.Are you cooking fish?" My reply tothe first question could be “I am exercising," or to the second could be “Yes, you’re right. I am cooking fish." A negative reply to something in progress would be “No, I am not cooking fish," again with the use of the verb “to be."

    Emphatic form: do or does

    If someone wants to ask me if I play the piano, they would ask “Do you play the piano?" and I would reply “Yes, I do" or, if I didn’t, “No, I don’t" or “No I do not." The word do is used for emphasis, and is also the way to ask a question of someone as to whether he does something on a regular basis or not. “Does she care for him?" The answer: “Yes, she does care." An example of the negative with “does" is “She does not (doesn’t) care for him".

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    The Past Tense

    You can say “I walked two miles yesterday." "You didthat yesterday." The action was completed yesterday; a definite time. You can also say “He died in 1972;" this is again a definite time.

    Past Progressive form

    However, if you want to say that something was in progress at a time in the past, you need to use the Past Progressive. For example: “I was typing, when the phone rang." The phone rang. It rang and stopped; that action was finished; but I was in the act of doing something when it rang, I was typing.

    When you need to ask questions about things in the past, you use the past tense of the verb "to be." "Were you typing?" The answer is “Yes, I was typing" or “No, I was not (wasn’t) typing" for the negative form. To ask questions with the verb “to do," you can say “Did you walk?" meaning at a specific time; like yesterday or last night, or when you were living in New York; Your reply can be “Yes I did walk" or the negative “No, I did not walk."

    Emphatic form: did

    Here is an exercise to practice the Present, Past and the Present and Past Progressive Tenses. Insert the correct word, or words of your choice as you see fit.The answers follow.

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    Practice exercise

    1. How much rent……..she pay now?

    2. Are you………..your rent today?

    3. Whose name……Rosa give as a reference?

    4. She always ……… name.

    5. How… know?

    6. What is she…………..? (do)

    7. Who……………… for a new apartment? (look)

    8. He said that he………… yesterday. (find)

    9. He ……………… it a second time when she stopped him.(say)

    10.Are you……………..with me? (come)





    6.doing? looking?


    9.was saying