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When I read @ctype.h's question 'Is "I am having a code" grammatically correct?', I thought that @Mark Beadles brought up a good point:

This is two questions, though you may not realize it. The first is the proper use of "I am having a NNN", the present progressive of have. [1]
...
The present progressive and the indefinite article are two of the more troublesome aspects of learning English, especially coming from languages that have neither. 2

As I (a native English speaker) thought about this, I don't think I could properly explain the present progressive to an ELL, even in the seemingly straightforward example @ctype.h gave:

I’m having a code which (does such and such, followed by a fragment of code)

So, really, what is the proper use of the present progressive form, in terms an ELL could understand?

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I'm not a native speaker, and I frequently need to explain the usage of the present progressive form to other non natives.

What I normally tell them is that they need to use this form when referring to an action which is taking place at the time or around the time of speaking, whereas they should use the present simple form in case of habitual situation. I stress the idea of action, adding that there are many verbs which are considered stative and which should not be used in progressive forms.

More specifically, coming to the verb have, I tell them that it can be used in the progressive form when it isn't an auxiliary verb and when its meaning is not "possess".

So, for example, they can say

I'm having a cup of tea

meaning that they are drinking it at the time of speaking, or

I'm having a wonderful time

to indicate they are enjoying themselves, but it is wrong to say

I'm having a car

because in this context the verb "to have" means "to own" or "to possess". Normally it works.

Addition : in my answer, I haven't considered the progressive form with a future meaning, where the problem of making a distinction between this and other future forms is as relevant as any.

  • Accepted for simplicity with thoroughness. Thanks! – Ken Bellows Jan 30 '13 at 18:58
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The present progressive or present continuous has these names because its primary use is to express activities which are “in progress” right now and which “continue” over time.

A. Right now I'm working in the garden.

In this use the construction contrasts with the simple present, which is used to express two different sorts of actions:

B. I work on my garden every weekend. ... expresses an activity which you perform habitually or repeatedly, whether or not you are performing it right now
C. I work for a software company. ... expresses a state which endures over time

Stative verbs like know, own and love are therefore not usually cast in the continuous form:

D. I am knowing what to do. I am owning a ’57 Chevy.

But with a non-stative verb like work it is acceptable (but not obligatory) to employ the continuous form with habitual/stative senses like those in B and C above if you are contrasting the present habit or state with a past or future habit or state:

B2. These days I'm working/I work on my garden every weekend (but I expect I will stop when the weather gets cold).
C2. I used to be a starving artist, but I work/I'm working for a software company now.

It is also employed when complaining about someone's habit or state, implying that the habit or state could or should be ended:

E. You're always working on your damn garden when you could be talking to me!

By and large, then, the present continuous expresses an impermanent activity or state which the subject is currently engaged in or “in the middle of”.

Accordingly, have is not ordinarily used in the present continuous when it is expresses ownership (which is a state); but it may be used in that form in other senses which imply activity:

F. I'm having a wife and son. I'm having a First Folio.
G. I'll call back later, I'm having my lunch right now. I'm having problems with this client.

A secondary use of the present continuous is to express an expected future activity. In this use it doesn't exactly contrast with the simple present; rather, it has largely replaced the simple present:

H. Today I'm at the office; tomorrow I'm working in my garden.

  • In regards to C2, is there something wrong with the following exchange? Person1: So what kind of job do you have? Person2: Oh, I'm working for a software company. – Ken Bellows Jan 30 '13 at 18:57
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    @KenB It's fine; the simple present would be, too. Here, however, we're distinctly into the casual register, where usage is much more fluid, and influenced by the context. "What kind of job do you have?", for instance, suggests a context in which what you "do" has already been defined, and your interlocutor is asking about something which is if not exactly temporary at least contingent: what the Scholastics would have called "accidental". "Rules" for this sort of thing are statistical rather than binary - more a matter for ELU than for ELL. – StoneyB Jan 30 '13 at 19:31
  • It may be worth noting that the verb "to love" may be used in progressive present in cases where either the object of the verb is ephemeral (e.g. "I'm loving this milkshake" [but tomorrow I won't be, because it won't exist anymore]) or the emotion might be ephemeral ("I'm loving this movie" [but it's possible that something will happen by the end that causes me to hate it]). Using the simple present with "to love" implies at least some expectation of permanence for both the object and the emotion. – supercat Oct 17 '14 at 23:20

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