James rubs his neck while speaking.

James looks out the window while thinking.

James thinks about a conundrum.

James walks to his destination.

These all are in third person simple present which confuses me. According to many, the simple present tense is used to describe more permanent actions while the present continuous/progressive tense is used to describe temporary acts. All three of the examples are temporary. James wouldn't rub his neck forever, only while speaking, and so on, which means that they should be in progressive/continuous tenses instead, but that just confuses me.

Rubbing his neck, James speaks.

  • This one, for one, just changes the implications. Now James speak forever, according to how simple tenses function, which means it still needs to be made more continuous/progressive.

The rest looks all over the place (if that wording makes sense to describe the confusion).

Rubbing his neck, James start speaking, "Blah blah blah."

Looking out the window, James is thinking about the implications.

The conundrum causes James to be thinking about it.

So what am I doing wrong here in my line of reasoning? I've read alot about present tenses and they use simple tenses to describe almost every action but that seemingly goes against the rules(?) of how simple tenses are meant to be used. I just don't understand this and other similar questions are of no help.

  • Welcome to ELL and thank you for your question. Please read our tour and Help Center pages. You misunderstand either your teacher or some website written by a non-native English speaker. The simple present is used to talk about actions that take place in the present. We can use it to describe situations that are more or less permanent, but that is not its only nor even its most common use. (The number of the verb is immaterial to your question. First person or third person, it makes no difference.) Jul 19, 2017 at 7:28
  • 1
    I read this question and I wonder: What is he asking?
    – Davo
    Jul 19, 2017 at 11:02
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    @Davo It isn't clear that the questioner knows, either. If you think it's a muddle now, have a look at the question before I edited it. Jul 19, 2017 at 22:26

1 Answer 1


75% of the time, the simple present tense -- when the subject is something other than the pronoun it and when used with verbs other than be or have -- makes you sound like you are narrating or logging things happening at a given moment, or recreating past events as though they were happening at this instant. This is not done very often in normal conversation. There are idiomatic exceptions.

That's the main heuristic you should go by with present tense versus present progressive. If you have to ask the question you can usually safely default to progressive unless the verb is be or have.

The other 25% of the time, simple present is being used in one of these situations (reference):

THE SIMPLE PRESENT TENSE IS USED: - To express habits, general truths, repeated actions or unchanging situations, emotions and wishes:

  • I smoke (habit); I work in London (unchanging situation); London is a large city (general truth)

  • To give instructions or directions:

    • You walk for two hundred meters, then you turn left.
  • To express fixed arrangements, present or future:

    • E.g., Your exam starts at 09.00

Be careful! The simple present is not used to express actions happening now.

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