When should you use the present continuous in French?

Posted by Josh on 22nd Sep 2022 in the blog in the frequently asked questions category

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The present continuous, sometimes known as the present progressive, is a verb tense used to convey that an action is currently happening. Unlike the regular present tense, it carries the suggestion that the action is ongoing - in other words, that it hasn’t yet finished or been completed.

For instance, if you wanted to say that you are enjoying your first meal of the day, you would have two options when it comes to choosing which tense to use. You could use the present tense, and say ‘I eat my breakfast’. Or you could use the present continuous, and say ‘I am eating my breakfast.’ This is useful because it implies that you have not finished eating, whereas the first option - the regular present tense - implies that the act of eating is complete. In fact it’s rare to use the regular present tense this way in English, and it's usually only used for certain verbs ('I see you', 'they are happy', 'she wants to be a teacher') or to convey habitual, repeated actions. ('On Saturdays, I go to the gym').

But when it comes to using the present continuous tense in French, it’s important to bear in mind that it doesn’t work in quite the same way that it does in English.

When not to use the present continuous in French

A common mistake English speakers make when speaking French is using the present continuous the same way it is used in English.

The continuous present is one of the most frequently used moods in English. It’s formed, as we have seen, by combining the subject (I) with the present form of ‘to be’ (am) and the present participle of the verb in question (‘eating’). Whether you are going to school, playing music or reading this very blog, you are doing something in the present continuous.

In French, however, you cannot just add the present participle to the verb ‘to be’ (etre) to form the continuous present in the same way. ‘Je suis mangeant’ in French simply doesn’t make sense. Instead, and unlike in English, you would simply use the regular present tense. So ‘I am eating’ in English becomes 'je mange', and ‘I am playing music’ becomes ‘je joue de la musique’. This is one area in which French is a bit simpler than English, even if the difference might be confusing at first.

Using 'être en train de'

So how would you convey the continuous present in French?

When speaking in the present in French, is isn’t usually important to imply that you are in the middle of the action you’re performing. But sometimes it’s critical to convey that the action is unfinished.

Consider the following statement: 'I'm playing piano'.

If you were to say 'Je joue du piano', it could mean either that you play piano for a living, or that you are doing right at this moment. However, using the expression 'être en train de' by saying instead 'Je suis en train de jouer du piano' eliminates the ambiguity here, and makes it clear that you are in the middle of playing the piano.

The phrase 'être en train de' can also be used with other tenses, particularly the perfect tense. It works in exactly the same way, and all you need to do is change the tense of 'être' accordingly: 'J’étais en train de construire une maison' ('I was in the process of building a house').

In the perfect tense, the phrase is often followed by a 'when' clause: 'Je étais en train de regarder la télévision quand ma mère a sonné' ('I was watching TV when my mother called').

To sum up

In French, we generally don't use the present continuous tense. When discussing actions you perform from day to day, you should use the regular present tense. You should only use the continuous present when it's significant to the meaning of your sentence that you do so, in which case all you need to do it use this simple phrase: 'être en train de + infinitive'.

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