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M.swan PEU says "we often use present tenses to give instructions." Other grammar books say "the simple present is used to give instructions".

My question is, Can we use present progressive to give an instruction?

for example,
'You are waiting outside the bank until the manager arrives. Then you're speaking to him....

  • using present progressive tense is not possible to give instructions – Leo Dec 10 '14 at 14:02
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It is possible to use the present progressive (present continuous) tense to give instructions, but not in the ordinary sense.

Instead, when we use the present continuous to give instructions, we do so only to give a very strong command or order--or a humorous parody of such. (However, it is also possible, and more common, to issue strong commands or orders with the simple present.)

The logic with the present continuous goes something like: It is so certain you will do this, (or since you have no choice but to do this) I am going to describe it as an arranged act of the future.

You are walking in there and you are telling her that she's fired! Is that clear?

We commonly use the present continuous to refer to future time, and we especially use what we can consider a special instance of the present continuous form--be going + [full infinitive]--for this "strong command or order" purpose, with the logic being something like: I am so certain you will do this, that it is the arranged future. You are going (to march) up those stairs immediately, young lady, and clean your room like I told you to do yesterday!

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    This is sort of conveyed by the logic you have described, but I think it's worth pointing out that using the present progressive in this way is an assertion of authority over someone (e.g., parent over child or boss over subordinate), particularly in the face of resistance to the commanded action. "You will do this because I have said you will do this and you have no choice in the matter." This is not necessarily true of simple present commands. – WinnieNicklaus Dec 10 '14 at 19:34
  • @WinnieNicklaus Well-said. I don't know the etiquette here. Would you like to improve my answer by editing it, or would you like me to do so? Or incorporate anything of mine into a more complete or concise or specific answer. – Jim Reynolds Dec 10 '14 at 19:41
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    @JimReynolds Can't I use present continuous to give an instruction for a longer- background action? – Dinusha Dec 11 '14 at 2:23
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    Like While (you are) standing on your head, recite Shakespeare backwards. Yes. – Jim Reynolds Dec 11 '14 at 2:44
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One can say "You are to be waiting outside the bank" to give an instruction, but not simply "are waiting".

You are not to be driving home in the snowstorm, do you understand?

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    The "to be" is often left off when a negation is used. "You are not going out with that boy." – Denise Skidmore Dec 10 '14 at 17:36
  • The to be is not necessary in an affirmative sentence that gives an instruction, but it is noteworthy that such sentences often are of that structure: present tense + full infinitive + -ing form. I don't know if that's sensibly considered the present continuous, or not, or sometimes by some people. It is also noteworthy that prohibitions (certainly a kind of instruction) are particularly often given this way: You are not (to be) verb-ing. – Jim Reynolds Dec 10 '14 at 18:07
  • With the right intonation, an emphatic assertion bordering on the imperative could be produced with the present progressive: "You are eating your peas, young lady!" – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 10 '14 at 22:25
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That depends what you mean by "instructions".

When you tell someone what to do -- whether it's an order or friendly advice -- you use an "imperative sentence". Imperative sentences use the simple present. "Run away!" or "Insert knob A into hole B." This is what we normally think of when we talk about "instructions".

But you can use the word "instructions" in a broader sense to mean describing what someone should or will do. In this case you are not using imperative sentences, but ordinary declarative sentences. In real life, people giving instructions often mix the imperatives, which actually tell the person what to do, with declaratives, where they explain something. Usually such declaratives are in the future tense. Like: "Turn left into the parking lot. You will see a gate in front of you and a metal box with a button. Press the button. The gate will open." Note the first and third sentences there are imperatives but the second and fourth are declaratives.

Sometimes people use present continuous in such cases. "Go through the third door. You are standing in a big empty room. The lights are flickering." Etc. I think this is relatively rare, but it's done.

  • You say that an instruction can use the present continuous if it is not an instruction. We can use any tense in a sentence that is next to an instruction or "mixed" between instructions in a piece of text. The answer is not responsive. – Jim Reynolds Dec 10 '14 at 18:17
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The only scenario I can imagine where present progressive would be appropriate would be when the speaker is encouraging the listener to visualize the scene and mentally "act out" the instructions as they are given. Even then, I would expect that only the first instruction would be presented this way.

Example:

"Imagine your workplace. You are standing outside your office door. Turn right, then walk down the hallway past three doors on your left."

Even this is kind of a cheat, since the sentence with present progressive tense is not giving an instruction. It's just establishing the precondition for the following instructions.

  • that sounds right except that while 'acting out' visualization you are establishing a fact and thereby givng an indirect instruction to the listener. Upvote for this answer. – Leo Dec 10 '14 at 16:48
  • @Leo, thanks! But can you clarify how establishing a fact is equivalent to giving an indirect instruction? I've never thought of it that way… – Jesse Dec 10 '14 at 17:08
  • I might have put it in the wrong way. So i take my words back about establishing a fact. But i imagine if were the trainer conducting a visualization excercise, i'd use the above tense. @Jesse – Leo Dec 10 '14 at 17:11
  • I can kind of see where you're coming from. Every sentence that follows "Imagine your workplace" could be interpreted to begin with an imaginary "Imagine that…," e.g. "Imagine that you are standing outside your office door. Imagine that you turn right…" @Leo – Jesse Dec 10 '14 at 17:21
  • The sentence standing alone lacks imperative, but in context it is part of an instruction set. – Denise Skidmore Dec 10 '14 at 17:34
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There are a couple of examples I can think of where the present progressive is very effectively an instruction:

The instruction "Go to London", which is also voiced like an order. If your job involved travel your boss may say "You are going to London today". That is not an order but I think this is clearly still an instruction.

The instruction "Eat your greens" which, again, is also voiced like an order. A parent, familiar with the behaviour of a fussy child could easily be heard to say "You are eating your greens today young man". In this context it is an instruction and also perhaps a disguised order.

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