Present simple and present continuous are the basic English tenses.  They are used very often, but many people have a lot of difficulties choosing the appropriate tense in a specific situation. In this article I would like to tell when we use these tenses as well as explain the differences between them and show some exceptions.

Present simple is used primarily to express actions and states that happens all the time or repeatedly. We use it also to talk about general statements that are always true. Present continuous is used to talk about actions that are in progress at the time of speaking. Compare:

Tom goes to church.
A general statement. We can conclude that he is a believer.

Tom is going to church.
Tom is in the middle of the action. He is on the way to church now.

We read books.
General statement,;we read books often and we like it.

I am reading a book.
I am doing it now.

Prest simple is rather rarely used without any additional word that says how often we do something. Usually, we use words like often, seldom, once a week, etc. to precise the action we talk about:

Tom goes to church every Sunday .

In the evenings we read books.

We use present simple when we talk about events that are always true and well-known or to express general truths, things that never change:

Doctors treat people.

I come from Poland.

We live in Spain.

The sun rises in the East.

To talk about our thoughts, opinions and emotions we also use present simple:

I love my whole family.

I don’t like Sue.

I think she is a nice girl.

Use of present simple is simple and shouldn’t cause any problems. Present continuous is generally more difficult for many English students. The problem is many people treat this tense as a way of expressing only those events which take place at the time of speaking. However, this is only one situation in which we use present continuous. In fact, any activity that has started but is not completed must be expressed in continuous tense. Let’s show an example: a man is building a house. He started 2 months ago, but the building is still in progress. The fact that the man is not building right now doesn’t matter because the whole action is not over yet. As long as the new house isn’t built, we have to say:

The man is building a new house.

Present simple can’t be used in this situation. Remember that the activity doesn’t have to be done directly at the time of speaking. To use continuous tense we have to know only that an event started in the past and hasn’t finished till now, for example:

I’m reading an interesting book now.
It doesn’t mean I am reading it now, but I hasn’t finished the book.

I’m looking for a new computer.
I am not now in the shop, I emphasize the fact that I am searching for a new computer for a while and hasn’t bought it yet.

We can say that all the above activities are temporary. To describe any situation that isn’t permanent we use present continuous. Compare:

My parents live in London.
This is a permanent situation, they have always live there and we can treat this as a general true statement.

I’m living with my friends because I have not found my own flat yet.
This is a temporary situation. Finally, I’ll find an apartment and will live on my own.

Paul always works very hard.
General statement.

Paul is working very hard today.
Probably Paul has a lot things to do now hence he is working very hard. However, this is a temporary situation, tomorrow, Paul returns to normal work.

We use present continuous while talking about changes taking place in the world or in ourselves. We emphasize that they are unceasing:

The population of the world is still growing.

Computers are getting faster and faster.

I’m slowly beginning to understand maths.
This is the beginning of a change. I didn’t understand it earlier.

You Should also remember that the verb to be does not occur normally in continuous time, so we say:

I am hungry.

Not: I am being hungry.

More information about present simple and present continuous you can find in the second part of this article.