Why is the present continuous used in English so often in comparison to the simple present?

For example

I eat

is possible, but the preferred way

I am eating

meaning roughly the same thing, is much more complicated.

In most languages, the simple present is the standard form. But in English, the more complicated form is favored.

Why has the more wordy present continuous mostly displaced a simpler form verb?

  • 1
    This makes no sense: a gerund is a verb! Please edit your question to provide several concrete examples of whatever it is you are talking about.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 11:37
  • 1
    You have to explain further, give an example where you think the gerund is unnecessary. Or "prove" that gerunds are overtaking the English language?! Where did you get this idea? Are you perhaps stuck on gerunds versus participles?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 14:01
  • 3
    @tchrist or the OP could be interested in why 'I am eating hotdogs' is more common than 'I eat hotdogs'. But the OP needs to edit to clarify and give examples.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 14:13
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    Other languages don't use it so extensively. Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 14:17
  • 2
    I mean why the longer form was chosen over the shorter form for a more frequent usage case. And even more strange: why a lot of native English speakers tend to use that longer form even in those cases when it shouldn't be used. Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 14:26

4 Answers 4


In English, 'I eat' is not actually a present tense, as such. The sentence :

I eat.

only conveys the concept of a state of activity. It is something I do, as part of my existence, throughout my lifetime.

I eat bread, I do not eat chicken ...

conveys a facet of my existence, an attribute of my humanity.

I am eating ...

is a true present tense. I am eating, now, presently.

Even if I say :

I am eating white bread this week and brown bread next week ...

it is still a present activity.

In my view, "I eat" can almost be regarded as an infinitive (in English).


If I may, I'm going to cite the British Council (and this specific page).

Present continuous is used:

  • To talk about the present in the following cases:

→ for something that is happening at the moment of speaking

→for something which is happening before and after a given time (At eight o’clock we are usually having breakfast)

→ for something which we think is temporary (I’m working in London for the next two weeks.)

→ for something which is new and contrasts with a previous state (These days most people are using email instead of writing letters.)

→ to show that something is changing, growing or developing (The children are growing quickly.)

→ for something which happens again and again: (He’s always laughing.)

  • To talk about the future in the following case

→ for something which has been arranged or planned (I am going to the city this afternoon)

Using "I eat" does not clearly carry a meaning of "I am doing the action of eating".

  • I'm not sure how this attempts to answer the given question. You may want to also explain the meaning of the simple present, and then attempt to explain how the present continuous is favored over the simple present (when they overlap in meaning or not).
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 16:35

The simple answer is this: where many other languages require the listener or reader to establish from context whether the message originator is specifying he is currently engaging in that activity or that, generally, he does but may or may not be doing so now ("Je conduis" tells you nothing about whether I simply know how to drive, or whether I am driving right this second), English has evolved to allow the distinction. I think the distinction is a valuable one, even if it makes English harder to learn for native speakers of other languages.

  • I think "Je sais conduire" would most likely be used if you were saying you know how to drive. Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 22:04
  • @Kiloran_speaking That's true, technically, but in French, just as in English, you might say "I drive" as a way of saying that you are capable of driving. Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 22:09
  • You might well be right - it's not something I've encountered, though. I wonder if this is a difference between Canadian French and French French (!)? Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 11:39
  • @Kiloran_speaking It might be, although my French is a bit of an amalgam of that of France and Quebec (closer to the former). A better example might be "I drive to work"; in French the translation of this would be ambiguous (except from context) about whether the person habitually gets to work by driving, or is actually driving to work at the moment, whereas in English this is perfectly clear. Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 14:50

I think it has to do with the way the language functions itself. On the other hand, present continuous is often used to talk about an action that´s taking place at the moment. There are other cases in which these could also be seen: How are you doing?, for instance. It´s true that more than ever before, there´s been a tendency to choose the longer form, but I think it´s idiomatic...

  • The final clarification of my question: people use present continuous much more frequently but for it they have a special form of a verb. A longer form. Present simple is used quite rarely but uses a shorter form. It's really strange. "I eat" and "I am eating" obviously the latter is in 99% of all cases. Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 17:39

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