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It is a well known fact that habitual activities are expressed by the Present Simple.

I go to the movies once a month. (it is a very simple and clear example)

But I have come across tricky contexts where I am not sure what guidelines to use to make the right choice. Here are two examples taken from two grammar books.

1) ... "I can't stand people who never stop apologizing all the time" - she told me. And besides I know he is deceiving poor Helen. He is seeing Betty Wills from the overseas department. And plenty of other interesting things are currently going on. For instance, every week we are experiencing more and more problems with theft. "

The book says that every week we are experiencing is correct. So, we have the Present Continuous here. Another text from a different book.

2) "I am having a great time here in England. My college term doesn't start until next month, so I am taking the opportunity to earn some money. I am staying with my English friend Robbie. His parents own a software business. In the evenings I drive into London with Robbie to go clubbing. I am making a lot of new friends. On weekdays I help Robbie's dad."

The book says that In the evenings I drive and On weekdays I help Robbie's are correct.

My question is: Why is it correct to use the Present Continuous in the first example and the Present Simple in the second? To me they have a lot in common. They happen within a limited period of time. It seems to me that the authors of the first book don't see "experiencing" as a habitual action while the authors of the second book see drive and help as habitual actions.

Would it be possible to use the Present Simple in the first example and the Present Continuous in the second and why not if not?

  • PC suggests that the act of being aware of the thefts, of experiencing them is recent. In fact the speaker says, "more and more problems" so the situation is mercurial/changing, but for the worst. PS for "In the evenings I drive" describes a habitual, and repeated action. The situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. – Mari-Lou A Sep 26 '15 at 11:42
  • ["In the evenings I drive" - The situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future] The context says that the person is on a break only for one month, so the ending of driving is easily foreseeable. "My college term doesn't start until next month" – user1425 Sep 26 '15 at 11:47
  • Either the PS and the PC would be acceptable then, but here the PS suggests something that has become routine for that limited period. Whereas the company which is experiencing the thefts (now), these are not perceived to be routine, the thefts don't occur every Friday night, or once a week, perhaps there are three thefts in a week, and none the week after. The weeks of thefts could be as few as two or as many as six or more. We don't know, but the situation is changeable, that's how I see it anyway. – Mari-Lou A Sep 26 '15 at 11:51
  • The technical term for the phenomenon is that the sentences are Generic, and they are often expressed in the present tense, with active verbs. They can however, be expressed in the past tense as well, and with many constructions, like the progressive: I used to walk every day; He's walking a lot less now; He was walking more before the accident. – John Lawler Sep 26 '15 at 14:04
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First, it is perfectly fine to say

Every week we experience more and more problems with theft.

You have specified a time period (every week) so present simple works. If you lost that, you would have to use present continuous to make your meaning clear:

We are experiencing more and more problems with theft.

As for the other one,

In the evenings I drive . . .

would be the right way to say that. You could also say

In the evenings I am driving . . .

Note that the two express slightly different meanings. Present simple here expresses a customary activity with no implied boundary; it is something you always do. Present continuous, however, has more of a current or transitory feel to it. You would use this to suggest that the activity has been started recently or may not be ongoing after a certain point.

  • Are you tackling the second example in the context given? I understand the difference between "In the evenings I drive" and "In the evenings I am driving" on their own. But in the context given it is a different thing. The context says about a limited period of time which inflicts boundaries. The action can go on only within the period. And it seems to me that Present Continuous fits better for the second example. But the authors say PS is correct. Do they have other criterion of "habitual activities"? – user1425 Sep 26 '15 at 11:08
  • Don't forget that present continuous is used primarily to express an action being undertaken right now, meaning as you are expressing the thought. It has broadened to include continual or habitual activities, but its use brings up in the mind that original, primary notion. In fact, you'll find people making jokes about the ambiguity from time to time: "I'm driving my father to the cleaners," someone might say while speaking to someone else in a kitchen. "I don't see the car," the other person might reply, apparently feeling compelled to make the tired, obvious joke. – Robusto Sep 26 '15 at 11:52
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For the first example, the simple present sounds right to my ear also. In fact, I would prefer it: "every week we experience more and more problems." There is a tendency to use the present progressive more frequently In modern English. I even notice it in my own speech. That may be the reason for the present progressive in the first example. It doesn't sound wrong, but I would prefer the present simple.

For the second example, the simple present is needed in both places. The progressive simply sounds wrong there.

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In my opinion, it is just a matter of what kind of activity and duration, i.e. how long those activities have been going on. For example, it is impossible for you to experience theft for longer than a month or two. Probalby for a couple of weeks, or a month at the longest as you would do something to prevent it from happening. That's why the 1st example used "Present Continuous". I don't recommend to use "Present Simple" in the 1st example as theft is not considered "habitual". It is rather "random" activity committed randomely.

The 2nd example is the perfect one why we use "Present Simple." The writer is describing his / her habitual activities during the college break. It might be longer than one month and they are all "habitual". That's why "Present Simple" is being used there.

It depends on hwo long a period and what kind of activities will justify using "Present Continuous". But as shown above, it is not difficult to tell.

Hope it helps.

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    1) Well, stealing can go on for years if officials do it. 2) Even if it's a college break I see no indication that these actions repeat every year, hence why are they habitual? It is said "My college term doesn't start until next month" it means that the break is not longer than 30 days. – user1425 Sep 26 '15 at 10:46
  • Read the below answer. I am talking about office theft, not government official theft. I am just giving examples. Take it easy. – user140086 Sep 26 '15 at 10:59
  • The problem is that people may be talking about different kinds of theft. I doubt that the nature of a theft influences over grammar. – user1425 Sep 26 '15 at 11:10
  • It amazes me how you measure the whole world by your standards. If theft doesn't happen in your heck of the woods habitually then you think it doesn't happen in the rest of the world. Plus it seems that grammar and lexis are the same thing for you. I don't think that it is impossible to consider peculation a theft. Plus, ad hominem arguments are not accepted. – user1425 Sep 26 '15 at 11:25
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    Your assumption "The writer is describing his / her habitual activities during the college break" is totally wrong. These actions don't occur every year, hence, they are not habitual. If your answer had been full then I wouldn't have asked for elaboration. Now I see I was asking too much. Good luck. – user1425 Sep 26 '15 at 15:17

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