Continuous and progressive aspects

Continuous and progressive aspects

The continuous and progressive aspects (abbreviated cont and prog) are grammatical aspects that express incomplete action in progress at a specific time: they are non-habitual, imperfective aspects. It is a verb category with two principal meaning components: (limited) duration and (possible) incompletion. Most languages treat continuous and progressive aspects as alike and use the two terms interchangeably, but there are languages that distinguish them.

As with other grammatical categories, the precise semantics of the aspects vary from language to language, and from grammarian to grammarian. For example, some grammars of Turkish count the -iyor form as a present tense;[1] some as a progressive tense;[2] and some as both a continuous (nonhabitual imperfective) and a progressive (continuous non-stative) aspect.[3]


Continuous versus progressive

The progressive aspect expresses the dynamic quality of actions that are in progress while the continuous aspect expresses the state of the subject that is continuing the action. For instance, the English sentence "Tom is walking" can express the active movement of Tom's legs (progressive aspect), or Tom's current state, the fact that Tom is walking rather than doing something else at the moment (continuous aspect).

Continuous and progressive in various languages

Unless otherwise indicated, the following languages treat continuous and progressive aspects the same, in which case the term continuous is used to refer to both.



The continuous aspect is constructed by using a form of the copula, "to be", together with the present participle (marked with the suffix -ing).[4] It is generally used for actions that are actively on-going at the time in question, and does not focus on the larger time-scale. For example, the sentence "Andrew was playing tennis when Jane called him." indicates what Andrew was doing when Jane called him, but does not indicate for how long Andrew played, nor how often he plays; for that, the simple past would suffice: "Andrew played tennis three hours every day for several years."

The perfect continuous (have been doing), as a special case, sometimes implies that the action being described was interrupted at the time in question, and does not clarify whether the action resumed. For example, "Andrew had been playing tennis when Jane called him." suggests that Jane's calling him interrupted his tennis-playing (whereas in the former example, it was possible that he simply ignored her call), and leaves open the possibility that what she told him required such urgent action that he forfeited his match and left. But the perfect continuous need not imply interruptedness, as in "I have been running for 30 minutes, but I'll stop soon."

Salikoko Mufwene[5]:pp.35-36 contrasts the effect of the progressive form on the meanings of action verbs versus those of lexically stative verbs:

  1. [I]t converts events expected to be punctual into longer-lasting, even if transient, states of affairs [e.g., "Nancy is writing a letter"];
  2. it [con]versely converts those states of affairs expected to last long (lexical statives) to shorter-lasting / transient states of affairs [e.g., "Tom is living with us"]; and
  3. it simply presents those verbs whose denotations are neutral with regard to duration as in process / in (transient) duration [e.g., "The wall is cracking"], though duration is most expected of statives.


One hypothesis regarding the origin of the development of the English progressive aspect was the Old English construction that used a form of beon/wesan (to be/to become) with a present participle (-ende). Although there is some debate among scholars, it is generally thought that such a construction in Old English was not analogous to progressive aspect signaled in present-day English (a more modern development), but rather carried the meaning of a simple stative verb, where the past participle functioned as an adjective, and was predominantly used for translating the corresponding construction in Latin texts (Brinton, 1988, p. 109).

One postulated source of the English current progressive aspect is the Celtic languages that have been spoken in Britain throughout its history, which all use a (to be)+preposition+verbal noun construction to form it.[6]


Chinese is one family of languages that makes a distinction between the continuous and progressive aspects.


Cantonese has a very regular system for expressing aspects via verb suffixes. 緊 is typically used to express progressive aspect while 住 is used to express continuous aspect. Take the following example:

Cantonese(Literal English) English Translation
Progressive (I) (wear) (PROG) (clothes) (.) I am putting on clothes.
Continuous (I) (wear) (CONT) (clothes) (.) I am wearing clothes.

In the example, the progressive aspect expresses the fact that the subject is actively putting on clothes rather than merely wearing them as in the continuous aspect. This example is useful for showing English speakers the difference between continuous and progressive because "wearing" in English never conveys the progressive aspect (instead "putting on" must be used).

In Cantonese, the progressive marker 緊 can express the continuous aspect as well, depending on the context (so the example above could also mean "I'm wearing clothes" in addition to "I'm putting on clothes"), but in general, the progressive aspect is assumed. In order to emphasize the progressive aspect rather than the continuous, 喺度 (literally meaning "at here") can be used in front of the verb:

(I) 喺度(at here) (wear) (PROG) (clothes) (.)

喺度 can also be used without 緊 to indicate the progressive aspect.


Unlike Cantonese, Mandarin does not have a verb suffix for expressing the progressive aspect, but it can use the pre-verbal auxiliary zài 正在 (or simply just 在), which also translates to "at [here]", similar to how Cantonese uses 喺度 in front of the verb.

The continuous aspect does have a verb suffix, 著/着 zhe, which is cognate with the Cantonese 住 in this context. Incidentally, 著/着 is also used for the Cantonese word for "wear", but is actually not related because it is one of those words that have multiple meanings in Chinese.

Mandarin(Literal English) English Translation
Progressive (I) 正在(right now) 穿(wear) 衣服(clothes) (.) I am putting on clothes.
Continuous (I) 穿(wear) (CONT) 衣服(clothes) (.) I am wearing clothes.


French does not have a continuous aspect per se; events that English would describe using its continuous aspect, French would describe using a neutral aspect. That being said, French can express a continuous sense using the periphrastic construction être en train de ("to be in the middle of"); for example, English's "we were eating" might be expressed in French either as nous étions en train de manger, or as simply nous mangions.

An exception is in relating events that took place in the past: the imperfect has a continuous aspect in relation to the simple (historic) past; e.g. nous mangions quand il frappa à la porte ("we were eating when he knocked at the door"). However, the passé composé is more often used to denote past events with a neutral aspect in a non-narrative context.

Quebec French often expresses a continuous sense using the periphrastic construction être après (lit. "to be after"); for example, English's "we were eating" might be expressed in Quebec French either as nous étions après manger, or as simply nous mangions (imparfait).


Icelandic possesses a present continuous aspect much like that found in English, but is a feature unique to Icelandic in the Scandinavian languages. It is formed with the copula vera (to be) + (infinitive marker) + infinite verb. Its usage differs slightly from English, as it generally cannot be used in static contexts, for example standing or sitting, but rather to describe specific activities. The following examples illustrate this phenomenon.

Ég er að borða eplið.
I'm eating the apple.

In contrast with:

Ég stend á borðinu.
I'm standing on the table.

In the second example, the simple present tense is used as it describes a state, standing on the table. The construction ég er að standa á borðinu is incorrect in Icelandic, although technically possible to construct. In addition this method of constructing the continuous present there exists a second method akin to the one which exists in the other Scandinavian languages, where a present participle ending in -andi is used along with the copula vera. This is a way of using the present participle that be analysed as more adjectival or adverbial than verbal, as it cannot be used with transitive verbs. With certain verbs it also has a frequentative implication, as in the following example:

Ég fer gangandi í skóla.
I walk to school (regularly).

Technically the use of the present participle is often not an example of continuous aspect in Icelandic.


Italian forms a continuous aspect in much the same way as in English, using a present tense conjugation of the verb stare ("to stay") followed by the gerund of the main verb. Depending upon the ending of the main verb in the infinitive, the present participle will replace the infinitive suffix with -ando (if the verb's infinitive ends in -are) or -endo (if the infinitive ends in -ere or -ire). For example: (Io) sto leggendo ("I am reading").

Present tense

The present tense and the present continuous have distinct meanings in Italian, the latter emphasising that the action is occurring at time the speaker is speaking. For example, Sto pattinando and Io pattino ("I am skating" [now] and "I skate") carry different connotations in standard Italian. While in English, one may say, "We are reading" and "We have been reading" to two different effects, there is no expression specifically for the latter in Italian.

The present continuous is formed by using the present tense of the verb stare + the gerundio. The gerundio is an Italian verb form - participle - and conveys the main meaning of the tense. For the regular verbs, the gerundio is formed from the infinitive of the verb by taking the stem and replacing the verb suffix with the appropriate gerundio suffix: -are verbs take -ando and the -ere and -ire verbs both take -endo. The table shows the conjugations of stare in the present tense with a gerundio to exemplify the present continuous:

person avere essere parlare credere finire dire opporre
io sto avendo sto essendo sto parlando sto credendo sto finendo sto dicendo sto opponendo
tu stai avendo stai essendo stai parlando stai credendo stai finendo stai dicendo stai opponendo
lui/lei sta avendo sta essendo sta parlando sta credendo sta finendo sta dicendo sta opponendo
noi stiamo avendo stiamo essendo stiamo parlando stiamo credendo stiamo finendo stiamo dicendo stiamo opponendo
voi state avendo state essendo state parlando state credendo state finendo state dicendo state opponendo
loro stanno avendo stanno essendo stanno parlando stanno credendo stanno finendo stanno dicendo stanno opponendo

The present continuous tense is one of the least irregular tenses in the Italian language, with a very predictable conjugation pattern even for verbs that are typically irregular, such as essere ("to be") and avere ("to have"). Note that for some of these irregular verbs, the gerund takes its stem from the 1st person singular of the indicative present tense:

infinitive 1st pers. sing. present gerund
dire dico dicendo
bere bevo bevendo
fare faccio facendo

Past tense

The past progressive is considered interchangeable with the imperfect. The gerundio remains unchanged, but the conjugation of stare changes to its normal conjugation for the imperfect. For example, Sto andando ("I am going") would change to Stavo andando ("I was going") in the past progressive. In conventional Italian speaking, Stavo andando, the past progressive, is mostly interchangeable with Andavo ("I used to go" or "I went"), the imperfect.

Conjugations of the Past Progressive:

person avere essere parlare credere finire dire opporre
io stavo avendo stavo essendo stavo parlando stavo credendo stavo finendo stavo dicendo stavo opponendo
tu stavi avendo stavi essendo stavi parlando stavi credendo stavi finendo stavi dicendo stavi opponendo
lui/lei stava avendo stava essendo stava parlando stava credendo stava finendo stava dicendo stava opponendo
noi stavamo avendo stavamo essendo stavamo parlando stavamo credendo stavamo finendo stavamo dicendo stavamo opponendo
voi stavate avendo stavate essendo stavate parlando stavate credendo stavate finendo stavate dicendo stavate opponendo
loro stavano avendo stavano essendo stavano parlando stavano credendo stavano finendo stavano dicendo stavano opponendo

Like the present progressive, the Italian past progressive is extremely regular. There are no irregular past participles, and stare follows the regular conjugation pattern for -are verbs in the imperfect.


There is no continuous aspect in standard German. The aspect can be expressed with gerade as in er liest gerade meaning he is reading. Certain regional dialects, such as those of the Rhineland, the Ruhr Area, and Westphalia, form a continuous aspect using the verb sein (to be), the inflected preposition am or beim (at the or on the), and an infinitive. For example, ich bin am Lesen, ich bin beim Lesen (literally I am on/at the reading) means I am reading. Known as the rheinische Verlaufsform (roughly Rhinish progressive form), it has become increasingly common in the casual speech of many speakers of standard German, although it is still frowned upon in formal and literary contexts.[7] In Southern Austro-Bavarian, the aspect can be expressed using tun (to do) as an auxiliary with the infinitive of the verb as in er tut lesen for he is reading.


There are various methods of forming a continuous in Dutch.

  • One is the same as in English: zijn (to be) with the present participle, e.g. Het schip is zinkende (The ship is sinking). This is usually used to give some dramatic overtone and is not normally used.
  • The second method of forming is as in the German dialects above: zijn, the preposition aan, and the gerund (verb used as a noun), e.g. Ik ben aan het lezen (literally I am at the reading), meaning I am reading.
  • The third method is by using a verb expressing position, like zitten (to sit), staan (to stand), liggen (to lie). Examples: Ik zit te lezen (lit. I sit to read), meaning I am reading, Zij ligt te slapen (lit. She lies to sleep), meaning She is sleeping.
  • A fourth method, also available in English, is using the adverb bezig (busy), e.g. Ik ben bezig met lezen (lit. I am busy with reading), meaning I am busy reading.


In the Amazigh language, past continuous is formed by using the fixed participle ttugha (original meaning: I forgot); ttugha is added before the verb that is in the present tense. So we have:

Ntta itari : he writes / he is writing

Ntta ttugha itari : he was writing

Present continuous is usually the same as the present tense. But in the Riff variety of Berber, the participle aqqa is added before the verb to form present continuous.


Formed exactly as in Rhinish German, Jèrriais constructs the continuous with verb êt' (be) + à (preposition) + infinitive. For example, j'têmes à mangi translates as we were eating.


Russian verbs of motion usually have progressive and non-progressive lexical pairs ("я иду" - "я хожу" (I'm going - I go), "я лечу" - "я летаю" (I'm flying - I fly)). However, non-motion verbs in Russian do not have the progressive aspect. Instead, adverbs like "сейчас" ("(right) now") can be used to indicate that the action is progressive/continuous and not habitual.


In Spanish, the continuous is constructed much as in English, using a conjugated form of estar (to be) plus the gerundio (gerund/gerundive/adverbial participle) of the main verb; for example, estar haciendo means to be doing (haciendo being the gerundio of hacer, to do). Unlike English, the continuous cannot be used to describe an action that has not yet begun at the time of interest; however, in the present tense, the simple present suffices for this, and in any tense, a similar effect can be achieved with the auxiliary ir a ("to go to") in its non-continuous aspect.

Like English, Spanish also has a few related constructions with similar structures and related meanings; for example, seguir haciendo means to keep doing (seguir being to continue).

Hindi and Urdu

Hindi and Urdu have a definite progressive/continuous aspect, marked by auxiliaries, for past, present, and future. It is distinguished from the simple aspect, and is widely used in everyday speech. Like English, it is also used to denote an immediate future action. For a complete conjugation of the continuous tenses, see Hindi grammar.


Quechua uses a specific suffix: -chka or sha; which is directly attached before the conjugation suffixes. Although the continuous aspect in Quechua is similar to that of English, it is more used than the simple tenses and is commonly translated into them (simple present and past), because of the idea that actions are not instantaneous, but they have a specific duration (mikuni [I eat] and mikuchkani [I am eating] are both correct, but it is preferred to use mikuchkani because we do no eat in a second).


Japanese uses the same grammar form to form the progressive and the continuous aspect, specifically by using the -te iru form of a verb. Depending on the transitivity of the verb, they are interpreted as either progressive or continuous. For example:


Pen ga kaban ni haitte iru.
The pen is in the bag (continuous).


Kare wa pen o kaban ni irete iru.
He is putting the pen in the bag (progressive).


In Hawaiian, the present tense progressive aspect form ke + verb + nei is very frequently used.

See also



  1. ^ G.L. Lewis, Turkish Grammar
  2. ^ Robert Underhill, Turkish Grammar
  3. ^ Jaklin Kornfilt, Turkish
  4. ^ §42.5, p. 368, A university course in English grammar, by Angela Downing and Philip Locke, reprint ed., Psychology Press, 2002, ISBN 041528810X.
  5. ^ Mufwene, Salikoko S., Stativity and the Progressive, Indiana Univ. Linguistics Club, 1984.
  6. ^ Language Log
  7. ^ The colloquial 'rheinische Verlaufsform' is covered in an amusing article by Bastian Sick, see,1518,350958,00.html


  • Matthews, Stephen and Yip, Virginia (1994). Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-08945-X. 
  • Yip, Po-Ching and Rimmington, Don (2004). Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15032-9. 

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