Same Verb Forms, Other Uses

Learning English would be simpler if we only had to teach one use for each verb form, right? But when we get into tense and aspect, there are multiple uses we have to cover. Of course, we can start with the most common meanings of each form. We tell beginners, for instance, that the present progressive is for actions happening right now, and will is used for future actions and events. Then either through our lessons or through exposure outside of class they eventually discover that a verb form can express more than one meaning, and more than one verb form can be used in the same context. How confusing!

Recently I heard a native speaker give an interview, and he used the present progressive to describe a scenario in the present.  I know we can use the present tense to make a narrative seem more vivid, but this scenario was about habitual actions. I had to pause and think, “Do we do that often?”  Well, I can’t confirm the frequency, but I believe we do use the present progressive this way. Imagine a police officer telling parents, “If you’re children are riding to school every day, they need helmets and a lesson on road traffic safety.” The officer could also have used the simple present “ride,” but his statement is also fine as is.

How familiar are your students with all the uses of a single verb form? Do they know:

  • future time clauses with before, after, if, etc. require a verb in the present?
  • Did you ever…? is a common alternative to Have you ever…? in everyday conversation?
  • narratives (especially in fiction) are often told in the present to make the description more vivid?
  • the present progressive functions just like be going to for planned events or actions in the future?
  • the present progressive can be used to emphasize a habitual action in the present, especially with the adverb always?

If you’d like to give some exposure to these kinds of uses, please check out my Same Verb Forms, Other Uses_handout. There’s discovery, reflection, and practice in this short activity.


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