I've prepared the following gap-fill exercise for my students (I'm in the EFL teachers programme):

Lilli ……………… (sit) on the saddle while her friend Victoria pushes her from behind.

However, I'm not certain if it should be 'sits' or 'is sitting'.

Advanced Grammar in Use states

When we focus on an activity itself, starting before and continuing up to (and possibly beyond) a particular point of time, rather than focusing on actions as completed events, we use continuous forms. (Hewings 2015)

Assuming that "Victoria" only pushed her for a moment, but Lilli continues sitting on the saddle for a while after that, intuitively and based on the rule quoted above, I would assume present continuous is correct?

Based on this rule, if "Victoria" was pushing Lilli the whole time and continues pushing her, would the tense of the subclause have to be present continuous as well?

Hewings, Martin. 2015. Advanced Grammar in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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    It depends on the context you are conceiving for this statement. If I were describing a picture I would probably use the continuous form for both clauses. On the other hand, if I were describing a habitual event (e.g what happens every time Lilli and Victoria go to their riding class), then I would use the simple form in both cases.
    – Shoe
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 18:59
  • Just make them match. Lilli sits on the saddle while her friend Victoria pushes her from behind. Lilli is sitting on the saddle while her friend Victoria is pushing her from behind. Quite separately, why make it so complex? Why not drop 'her friend' and even the second 'her', giving 'Lilli sits on the saddle while Victoria pushes from behind'? Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 18:54

1 Answer 1


However, I'm not certain if it should be sits or is sitting.

Both are valid. "Is sitting" indicates that the action has started and has not finished at the time referred to.

"Sits" indicates a present state = is seated

In the context, to sit is a durative verb, i.e. the action of the verb takes time, and so both forms encompass an almost identical meaning.

See "they had renovated" vs "had been renovating"

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    But why use present tense at all? Mostly active verbs in present tense refer to generic (repeated, characteristic) actions rather than what's happening once, at the moment, which is what the progressive construction is for. Commented May 10, 2023 at 20:07
  • @JohnLawler But why use present tense at all? That is a red-herring and nothing to do with the question. It could well be a use of the historic present.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 11, 2023 at 9:55
  • 1
    Since any tense can be used in the example, given a lack of context, this makes a rather useless exercise as it is. It could be salvaged a bit by making a sentence with several possible tenses and having students describe the context for each tense use. As it is, it's not clear what it's sposta be teaching, except that English doesn't make sense. Commented May 12, 2023 at 0:14

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