The “ing” thing

Ana is an advanced speaker of American English who has been living in New York for more than 20 years. She usually manages to understand others and make herself understood, so she hasn’t felt the need to improve her English skills—until now.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s an old American expression meaning that if something works, don’t worry about it. But Ana is trying to fix her English. And I am her language "mechanic"!


For one, she uses only one verb form for every purpose. “No past tense,” she often says, with a playful little smile. She likes the “ing” form, and she uses it all the time. I have been trying to teach her that “ing” isn’t for everything.

Let’s start with the “ing” form’s most important role: It is a major component of the continuous tenses (sometimes called the progressive tenses).

The present continuous allows us to describe an activity that starts in the present and continues for a while.

- I am doing my homework right now.

- She is cooking dinner for 10 people.

If you’re in the middle of an activity, and if the activity continues for a limited period of time, use the continuous. Maybe you normally shop for groceries on Wednesdays, but if a friend calls you on your cell phone while you’re at the supermarket and asks what you’re doing, you say, I am shopping (or more informally, I'm shopping, or I’m out shopping, or I’m doing my grocery shopping). See the difference?


We use the simple present (I shop) for actions that occur regularly (every week, often, sometimes, occasionally, never) and the present continuous (I’m out shopping) for actions that are taking place right now, in the present moment. Click here to see more examples of the simple present versus the present continuous.

Now, let’s move along to the past continuous, just so you can see how this “ing” thing works in the past. The past continuous lets us describe an activity that started in the past and continued for a while…until something else came along and interrupted it.

If you’ve ever watched “Law and Order,” you’ve heard this tense before:

Detective Briscoe: Where were you on the night of December 24th?

Mrs. McGreevy: I was washing the dishes when I heard a loud noise. My husband was watching TV, so I wasn’t sure whether the sound was coming from the TV set or from outside.

Detective Briscoe: Maybe Santa Claus was coming down the chimney!?

Next week’s blog post will involve a trip…to the future!


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1 comment (Add your own)

1. Chanavudh V. wrote:
Very helpful article!

The use of "ing" is one of the most basic component of English language. However, whether intentional or not, I still find many people using it wrong.

I really like it that you chose to write about this simple thing that people use everyday, but neglect to understand how it actually works.

October 22, 2016 @ 9:52 PM

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