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I'm a teacher of English and I try to dive a bit deeper into the language I teach. I have a good command of grammar, but I sometimes hear things like:

(all these examples are from vlogs by natives speakers from the UK and Canada)

  1. You can still make progress if you're going to the gym three times a week

  2. It's really important to make sure that you're just having the right plan and you are sticking to it

  3. ... when you're constantly messaging someone

  4. ... because when I'm visiting my mom, usually she wants to talk to me all the time

In these examples it seems to me that the action described in the present continuous happens usually or always or over a long period of time. Why is the present continuous used in these examples? Are they all correct/natural?

Am I right that native speakers tend to use continuous tenses in spoken English?

Thank you!

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    I'm going to the gym three times a week [implied at this time, this year etc.]. Generally, I go to the gym twice a week. These would all the same in AmE too. The temporal frame of the ing form is not necessarily explicit. It can be implied.
    – Lambie
    Sep 27, 2023 at 17:20
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    There is no 'rule'. It's perfectly idiomatic to say "You are always doing X" to mean "You frequently do X". Sep 27, 2023 at 17:46
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    In speech, people say all kinds of things. I have no idea why she said it like that. Don't learn English from vlogs :) Sep 27, 2023 at 18:28
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    @Lisablog: You need to ditch the idea that if native Anglophonres don't say what you were taught, they're definitely making mistakes. Native speakers do sometimes make mistakes, but often if you see hear / read what you think is wrong, it's because you've been erroneously taught that a tendency is a rule. Most of your "present continuous when it should be present simple" examples are perfectly natural to the natives. The only one I don't like is the "having the right plan" one (possibly Indian English?). Sep 27, 2023 at 18:51
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    Hello! This is a lovely question, really useful for native speakers who teach English and for learners. It illustrates beautifully that there are no hard and fast rules where English grammar is concerned but only guidelines. So, never stop questioning or asking, there is always something new to learn and for you to share with your students. P.S I don't know what Araucaria said in the comments, perhaps there was a misunderstanding; he's usually super nice and respectful to everyone. Check out his answers, they're detailed and supported with references not only opinions.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 28, 2023 at 4:22

4 Answers 4

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As the Original Poster expected some of these are indeed mistakes. For example:

  1. It's really important to make sure that you're just having the right plan.

We don't use the present continuous with the verb have unless it is being used to describe an action: I'm having a party tomorrow or I'm having a great time, for example.

The present continuous

The present continuous is normally used when some action (or state) is in progress at a particular point in time, or period of time.

In the most simple cases, this is when the action is taking place now. Of course, now might mean right this second:

  • Help, I'm drowning!

Or it might mean this year, this month, this week etc:

  • I'm studying German.

This is probably the best explanation for Original Poster's example (1) and the "you are sticking to it" part of (2).

  1. You can still make progress if you're going to the gym three times a week
  2. It's really important to make sure that you're just having the right plan and you are sticking to it

However, the time involved is not always now, it can be something that takes place at the same time as another action that is mentioned:

  • While Ed's doing the washing up, I watch TV .

Here Ed's washing up activity is taking place at the same time as my watching TV activity. This is the reason for the use of the present continuous in (4):

  1. ... when I'm visiting my mom, usually she wants to talk to me all the time.

The Original Poster's example (3) is a bit trickier to deal with in one way, and much easier in others. This is because it's impossible to establish exactly why the present continuous is being used, but there are two or three reasons that could easily explain it.

First, however, let's look at the phrase constantly messaging someone. This is an interesting phrase because, as the OP clearly knows, we tend to use the simple rather than the continuous for things that happen always/ usually/ constantly. However, people can do things constantly for a short specific period of time. Constantly does not mean "for ever", but "without stopping". So it might be that you went on a date with someone and they were constantly texting their friends. This would mean just that they were texting without stopping for the period of the date. It doesn't mean that this has always and will always happen, of course.

It turns out that there are at least three reasons why the present continuous might have been used in (3), especially because we do not know what the rest of the sentence was or the context in which it was said.

  1. ... when you're constantly messaging someone

First, it might be that it's used because the time being considered is now. Second, it might be being used because X happens "when you're constantly messaging someone". In other words it's maybe used to indicate that two actions are taking place simultaneously. And there's a third possibility that we haven't really talked about yet.

There's a very frequent use of the present continuous with the adverb always:

  1. My toddler's always picking her nose and wiping the bogeys on the table.

Now the Original Poster would indeed be wondering why on earth we are using the present continuous, which is reserved largely for things happening now, when this kind of sentence says pretty much exactly that this happens all the time. It doesn't really fit with the general theories that we read about in grammar books and so forth. It's normally presented as an exception.

However! There is, I believe a very good reason why this is basically the same kind of use of the present continuous as used in (4). In other words it is used to show that one thing is happening at the same time as another. The theory is not yet published.

Some always-sentences would sound very odd if they used the present continuous:

  1. The corpse of King Boll is always decaying in the ground.
  2. Biden is always reading books in his garden.

Example (6) is odd if the meaning is meant to be the same as The corpse of King Boll decays in the ground or The corpse of King Boll is decaying in the ground. This is because we tend to use [am/is/are always x-ing] for punctive acts. That is to say actions which can takes place more than once or can take place many times.

Example (7) is a bit odd if said, for example, by me, Araucaria. The reason for this is that, as you might rightly suppose, I have never met Biden. We tend to use the is always X-ing construction when we have personally experienced or witnessed this thing happening a lot. Example (7) implies something like:

  • Whenever I see him, Biden is always reading books in his garden.

In other words, the construction lends the weight of your (or sometimes someone else's) personal testimony that this thing happens a lot. The reason for the present continuous is to imply that this always happens at the same time that you personally encounter it. That's the theory anyhow. And this could be the reason for the present continuous in (4), where the adverb constantly has a similar meaning to always. It might be paraphrased as:

  • given that you are always messaging someone (whenever I see you).

One may wonder why I have talked a lot about things happening at the same time, or things happening now, but I haven't discussed temporariness. Well, the reason is that I believe that temporariness is a very good reason to consider something as happening now, as opposed to always or usually. However, this doesn't work the other way around. Just because something happens usually or always doesn't mean it isn't happening now! What is important is the way the speaker is thinking about the situation.

Imagine if someone falls off a building. A passer-by rushes up to them and puts their ear to the person's chest. What are we going to shout to the passerby?:

  1. Do they breathe?
  2. Are they breathing?

The answer, of course is (8), not (7). It is not that we think their breathing is temporary, but because we are wondering if they are breathing right now.

And, come to think of it, you're breathing right now too! And the earth is spinning on its axis. And the moon is orbiting the Earth. And ...

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    I agree the King Boll sentence sounds a little odd, but the same construction sounds totally natural in other contexts. For example, "The ceremonial candle is always burning in the window" seems perfectly fine despite being a continuous action that doesn't occur more than once. I maybe think "decay" strains the use of "always", as there was a time when King Boll wasn't a corpse, and there will be a time when his corpse isn't decaying anymore. Sep 28, 2023 at 13:05
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    @NuclearHoagie Yes, I think that's right. It's not quite the same kind of usage, I don't think, as She's always messaging me, or He's always making fun of me. It's more like The earth is forever turning, or * where the always and forever are quite literal. But I'm aware that the action is not always repetitive, hence the tend to ;)There's two other problems with the King Boll, I think., namely that decaying is such a slow process and also that it's not witnessed or experienced by anyone. Sep 28, 2023 at 13:25
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    @Nuc I think the difference is that decaying has an implied timeframe; it can only happen once, and will only last for a time. In the ceremonial candle example, it's a general "ceremonial candle," not one specific, individual candle. "This (specific, individual) candle is always burning" sounds odd to me, because it makes it sound like it's something that will never end, and candles normally burn out. Conversely, "this lightbulb is always on" sounds okay to me, because lightbulbs can last an indeterminate length of time (there are some that have lasted a hundred years or more).
    – Aos Sidhe
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:57
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    Nice answer. It's worth pointing out that the use of "always" or "constantly" with the present progressive is often used to express irritation. For example, by an aide who disapproves of the president's reading habits: Biden is always reading books in his garden when he should be attending to affairs of state. This explanation would also account for the nose-picking example...
    – Shoe
    Sep 30, 2023 at 15:20
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    ...Quirk in the CGEL (p199 footnote) states: "In combination with always, continually or forever, the progressive loses its semantic component of 'temporariness'. {Bill is continually/always/forever working late at the office.} The progressive in such cases often imparts a subjective feeling of disapproval to the action described. Thus the speaker...seems to suggest that working late in the office is an irritating or deplorable habit."
    – Shoe
    Sep 30, 2023 at 15:21
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The only one that sounds unidiomatic to me is "you're just having the right plan". That sounds more like how a speaker of Indian English would use the present continuous.

But we would say "We're having chicken for dinner".

Native speakers use the present continuous for a number of reasons, but among them, when the subject concerns a regimen like exercise or a diet, which occurs over a period of time, the present continuous emphasizes the ongoing nature of the thing:

you're going to the gym on a regular basis

you're sticking to the diet and not punctuating it with binges

With respect to sending messages on your phone, someone who thinks you're doing it too much probably isn't concerned with the number of messages you've sent but with the time you've spent messaging and doing nothing else, and the present continuous can reinforce the opinion that it is an incessant activity on your part; whenever they look over, you're looking at the screen and your thumbs look like they are practicing for the Thumb-War Olympics.

Why are you spending so much time messaging?

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    I think misuse (or overuse) of the present continuous can also be typical of people who speak German as their native language (reminds me of some interviews of Arnold Schwarzenegger). Sep 28, 2023 at 15:54
  • I would agree. I think the problem is pedagogical. People for whom English is a second language are taught rules when to use the continuous, and students misunderstand or misapply the rules. Sep 28, 2023 at 16:01
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    I think there's also a connotation that the present simple is for attributes of something without a clear boundary of when they started and stopped, while the present continuous denotes deliberate action. "Why do you spend so much time texting?" sounds like a harsh accusation about one's character. While "why are you spending so much time texting?" is softer, because it connotes something more like "why are you spending so much time texting lately?", so it's more of a question about their recent activity. That's my native AmE perspective, at least. Sep 28, 2023 at 17:33
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    @shadowtalker The simple present (Why do you spend...) suggests a regular or habitual thing and the continuous (Why are you spending...) suggests a continual or even unrelenting thing, but not necessarily a regular or habitual thing: What's going on at work today, that you are spending so much time texting? I rarely see you texting. Maybe you hear in the simple present version a simmering resentment that is finally expressing itself? Sep 28, 2023 at 18:34
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    Present continuous can theoretically reinforce the opinion that it is an incessant activity, but "why are you spending so much time messaging" would typically just be the natural phrasing to refer to someone messaging right now. (Although "texting" is much more commonly used compared to "messaging", unless you're referring to a specific platform, e.g. "I'll message them on Facebook".)
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 29, 2023 at 11:48
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Some of these are mistakes - people make mistakes all the time, especially when speaking or when writing in a careless way.

Others are quite acceptable:

You can still make progress if you're going to the gym three times a week.

That's fine. Your current, temporary pattern of behaviour is to visit the gym three times a week, but that isn't expected to continue indefinitely.

You can say "Joe is going to the gym three times a week this year." "Temporary" might still mean lasting a whole year or more.

Similarly "It's important to make sure that you're sticking to the plan". Is a perfectly natural and idiomatic use of present continuous. It means "you are sticking to the plan for the time being". However the use of "having the right plan" is a mistake.

And so on. I shan't try to go through each example in detail. The other two are acceptable grammar. It is acceptable to say "I'm always doing something" to mean "I frequently do something".

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I just want to say something about the use of "having" in sample 2:

It's really important to make sure that you're just having the right plan and you are sticking to it

It is true that we don't generally use the "ing" form of "have" unless it refers to an action. So:

She's having a good time

but not

*She's having a car.

I think what is happening in this example is that the speaker is very focused on action. They are not just concerned that you possess a plan, but that the plan is actually guiding your actions. In corporate-speak, we might say that you are "executing on a plan", but that's not necessarily the desired vibe for a vlog. So, aiming for informal speech but with a sense of action, the vlogger reformulated "having a plan" as a thing you do rather than a state you are in.

To language learners, I would say "don't try this at home." It's definitely not standard. But it doesn't seem to me like a typical native-speaker mistake; more a bending of the rules.

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