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The Progressive Tenses

Most verbs can form a present participle and be used in the progressive tenses. These tenses express the idea that an action is in progress during a particular time, that an action begins before, is in progress during, and continues after a period of time or after another action begins.

The present progressive tense expresses an action that is taking place at the moment of speaking and can imply that the action is incomplete.

  • Lauren is shopping right now. (INCOMPLETE ACTIONShe is still shopping.)
  • He is traveling to Germany. (INCOMPLETE ACTIONHe hasn’t arrived yet.)
  • The sun is shining brightly. (INCOMPLETE ACTIONThe sun continues to shine.)
  • The girls are walking to the park. (INCOMPLETE ACTIONThey haven’t arrived yet.)

Often, the progressive present tense can be used to imply a future tense meaning.

  • am driving home this weekend.
  • Are you going to college next fall?

The past progressive tense expresses an action that took place in the past but was in progress for a period of time or was incomplete.

  • Lauren was shopping all day. (IN PROGRESS ALL DAY)
  • The boys were fighting over a toy. (IN PROGRESS FOR A PERIOD OF TIME)
  • Tim was studying but got tired and took a nap. (INCOMPLETE)
  • They were driving home when they ran out of gas. (INCOMPLETE)

It is quite common to add a when clause to statements that show an incomplete action or an action in progress that is interrupted.

  • She was crying when I arrived.
  • Mom was trying to rest when the phone rang.
  • We were just sitting down to supper when our neighbor knocked at the door.
  • Mary was practicing the piano when I dropped by.

It is possible to place a past progressive verb in a clause that begins with while in order to emphasize that the action was in progress when an interruption occurred.

  • While I was swimming in the pool, I felt sick.
  • My brother began to cry while I was trying to study.
  • While you were out jogging, someone broke into the house.
  • While he was standing at the bus stop, it started to snow.

when clause and a while clause can be used with the same sentence elements.

  • While he was standing at the bus stop, it started to snow.
  • He was standing at the bus stop when it started to snow.
  • While Father was working in the basement, I fell and broke my arm.
  • Father was working in the basement when I fell and broke my arm.

The interruption of an action in progress can be another action in progress.

  • While I was trying to fall asleep in my apartment, the upstairs neighbor was making noise.
  • She was checking the test results while I was working in the lab.

The future progressive tense expresses an action in progress or incomplete that will be taking place at a time in the future.

  • Lauren will be shopping when I call her.
  • We will be traveling by car.
  • Will you be having dinner with us tonight?
  • The two boys will be sharing a room together.

As with the present and past progressive tenses, the future progressive is used to express an action in progress that is interrupted.

  • He will be cooking when we get there.
  • The children will probably be sleeping when you peek in on them.
  • When you open your eyes, you will be standing in your new house.
  • Will you still be working in the garden when I stop by?

Note that, although the clause with the progressive form of the verb is in the future tense, the verb in the when clause is in the present tense.

  • She will be preparing breakfast when the flowers arrive.

This difference of tenses also occurs with while clauses: The while clause is in the present tense, and the main clause is in the future tense.

  • While you’re out skiing, I’ll be making some lunch.

In some cases, the simple future and the future progressive tenses express very similar situations or actions, especially when the future action takes place at an indefinite time in the future. In the following examples, note that both sentences express an almost identical situation: We can’t say for sure at what time Tyler is coming, but he is expected soon.

  • Tyler will come soon.
  • Tyler will be coming soon.

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