I want to ask questions about a text. The text is written in past tense. When I talk about the text, do I only use simple present or also present progressive? Please, look at the following examples.

  • Text: “They were looking for something.” ☞ What do they do in the garden? vs What are they doing?

  • Text: “Emma asked: ‘What are you looking for?’” ☞ What do the boys look for? vs What are the boys looking for?

  • Only the second of your texts contains direct speech. (You have put speech marks around the first but it appears to be just part of the author's narrative.) So is your question asking: How do I report what Emma asked? or How do I report what the boys did / were doing? If your question, however, is a general one about how to relate the events in a book or film, then the answer is that, conventionally, the present simple is used: Example: Then Emma asks the boys what they are looking for or Then Emma asks the boys what they were looking for (if they are no longer looking when she asks).
    – Shoe
    Commented Apr 15, 2012 at 13:07

2 Answers 2


You state that you wish to ask questions about a text, presumably to students who have just read the text. You may use either present (What do the boys hope to find according to this passage? or past tense: What were the boys looking for in this passage? OR present progressive (What are the boys looking for in this passage?)

Just try to use the same tense throughout your questioning so that you will not confuse the students.

  • Text: They were looking for something. ☞ What were they doing?

  • Text: Emma asked: "What are you looking for?" ☞ Emma asked what the boys were looking for.

I don't know where you got the idea that you cannot use progressive tenses in reported speech or when talking about a text, but you most certainly can, and in many cases should.

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