Could you please explain to me the differences between the simple, progressive and perfect aspects.

"Simple aspect" means completed action (action starts and finishes) but I don't really understand the fine details.

For example, with these sentences:

It usually rains in the fall.
He smokes 15 cigarettes a day.
I slept for a long time yesterday.

Here's what I understand: if I didn't complete sleeping I should use "I was sleeping". If it doesn't stop raining we can't say "it is finished". Is that correct?

For continuous aspect, duration is an important factor – but how?

For example:

She is wearing a jacket.

Normally "to wear" action is completed but we can use here present continuous aspect.

Another example:

She has been wearing the same jacket for 3 days.

and why can't I use continuous aspect here?

I have cleaned my room.

It means that my room is clean now. Action is finished but why can't I say "I have been cleaning room" like "They have been playing in the mud"? Action is completed but we don't care here about completed, we are caring about duration, why?

1 Answer 1


Aspect does not refer to a difference in the things described. It refers entirely to how the speaker is choosing to refer to the events on that occasion: specifically, on the temporal relationship between the events and other events or points in time.

I was sleeping is focussing on the continuing state (in the past) of my being asleep. It can refer to precisely the same event as I slept or I have slept: the choice is in what we are saying about the event.

In English, for most verbs we use the so-called present continuous to talk about events which are happening at this moment, irrespective of how long they are continuing: She is wearing a jacket usually talks about the fact that at this moment she has a jacket, and says nothing about how long or how often she does so. For most verbs, we use the simple present only for habitual or universal claims: She wears a jacket talks about her habitual apparel. (It may or may not be true that she is wearing a jacket at this moment, but this does not affect whether She wears a jacket is true).

Verbs of perception and mental state usually do not behave in this way, and are used in the simple present (I see, I feel, I remember). They can be used in the continuous, but this is "marked" as linguists say, and expresses a specific meaning: focussing on the immediate currency of the state or perception. But again they do not express a different situation, just a different way of referring to it, with a different focus.

In the past, there are two more options - the perfect (I have seen) and the perfect continuous (I have been seeing). Again, the difference is in what we are focussing on, not in the events described. In I have cleaned my room, we are focussing on the present relevance of the activity, and on the action being completed. But we certainly can say I have been cleaning my room, about the same activity, but with a different focus.

One way to look at this is by considering what questions they might answer.

What have you done today? I have cleaned my room.

Where were you at 2:30 this afternoon? I was cleaning my room.

How did you spend the afternoon? I have been cleaning my room.

  • 1
    Good answer, I like the sample Q&As illustrating the past tense. I'd just like to mention something about the past progressive. One might think its point-in-time nature would make it uncommon (At 2am, I was sleeping.). But it appears frequently because of constructs like “an action was happening, when some event occurred”. I was sleeping when the telephone rang. This conversation goes from present continuous to past continuous: Ring, ring. Hello? What are you doing? I was sleeping!
    – Celery Man
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 15:00
  • 1
    @anouk: yes. In the question How did you spend the afternoon?, the questioner is treating it as a completed activity, so the cooperative principle makes a simple past the most likely answer. But the answerer could choose to focus on the present relevance (I've cleaned my room), or the continuing activity (I was cleaning my room) or both (I've been cleaning my room).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 21:11
  • 1
    @anouk. Yes. "I have been cleaning my room" suggests that you may not have finished, but it does not necessarily imply that. I'm not sure that it focuses so much on the activity as on the continuing nature of the activity.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 2, 2020 at 12:09
  • 1
    @Anouk. Yes. I have perhaps overstated the idea of focus: If I say "I have been cleaning out my room, and I've found this old photo", the focus is on the photo, not the cleaning; but the implication is that the cleaning took some while - maybe the whole afternoon, or perhaps it was over several days. I might also say "I've cleaned out my room and found this photograph", and then I am not putting any emphasis at all on how long it did or didn't take. These distinctions are very subtle.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 2, 2020 at 18:56
  • 1
    @anouk, yes, you can. The have means "I am choosing to treat the events I am describing as having some present relevance, though what exactly that present relevance means can be very variable". The be -ing means "I am choosing to treat the events I am describing as having lasted over a period".
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 2, 2020 at 21:26

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