The present continuous is a useful tense but learners often find it difficult to know when to use and indeed it is frequently overused. There are three main uses for this tense, and today we’re going to focus on one of them that can help you in the IELTS Speaking exam: using present continuous for talking about the future.
What is the Present Continuous?
To be + present participle
(am/is/are) + (verb+ing)
- I am reading a book.
- She is reading a book.
- They are reading books.
When and why do we use it?
To express the fact that something is happening right now and is ongoing. The action began in the past (not long ago) and will continue into the future. It can also be used negatively, to state this something is not happening.
- Are you sleeping?
- I’m watching a movie.
- He’s not playing computer games.
To state that something is ongoing even though we’re not doing it at this exact moment.
- I’m studying English.
- She’s training to be a doctor.
- They’re reading Howl at school.
To talk about events that will or will not happen in the near future.
- Are you going to Karen’s house on Friday?
- I’m not visiting my mum this weekend.
- He’s giving a presentation at the gala.
Present Continuous for Future Events
We normally use the present continuous to talk about an ongoing event (the first and second uses above) but if we use a future word or suggest that the event will take place in the future, the present continuous can also be used to suggest an arrangement for the future.
Note: future words and phrases include tomorrow, this weekend, next week, on Monday, at Christmas, etc.
When we use the present continuous to talk about the future, it suggests that the people involved (the subjects of the sentence) have arranged to do something. It makes the verb seem pre-arranged.
- She’s meeting her boyfriend at the restaurant = the girl and her boyfriend have agreed to meet there
- I’m flying to Japan on Friday = I’ve bought my ticket for that day
- They’re holding a staff meeting at 5pm = all the staff have been informed and know that there is a meeting they should attend
Likewise, we use the present continuous when we have already planned the proposed action before speaking. It is not speculative; the plan is confirmed.
- Susan is taking her exam in May = this has already been decided
- They’re playing badminton tomorrow morning = they have agreed and decided a suitable time
- We’re going to the cinema at 9pm = the tickets are already booked and we both know about this
Why not use “going to”?
Often, there is no real difference between “going to” and the present continuous.
- I’m going to study photography later this week.
- I’m studying photography later this week.
In each case, the meaning is exactly the same. However, if we left out the future word or phrase, the meaning would be different:
- I’m going to study photography = I intend to study it in the future
- I’m studying photography = the course has already begun and I’m continuing with my studies
Don’t confuse present continuous and present simple
If an event is going to happen repeatedly as part of a schedule, and has happened in the past, we might want to use the present simple. However, if the event is likely to occur once – in the future – we would use the present continuous.
- They’re having a meeting on Tuesday.
- They have a meeting every Tuesday.
Don’t use non-continuous verbs with continuous tenses
Non-continuous verbs are usually action verbs which you can see people doing. They are broken into three categories:
- Abstract verbs such as to be, to want, to cost, to seem, to need, to care, to contain, to owe, to exist…
- Possession Verbs like to possess, to own, to belong…
- Emotion Verbs including to like, to love, to hate, to dislike, to fear, to envy, to mind…
There are mixed verbs, which have two or more meanings. If one meaning falls into the above categories, it cannot be used with a continuous tense. However, if the other meaning is more like a normal verb, then it can be used.
- We’re having Chinese food tonight = we will eat Chinese food tonight, not having as in possessing the food
Present Continuous for IELTS Speaking
In the IELTS Speaking Part 1 you may have several opportunities to use this tense. If asked about travel, friends, family, or any number of common topics, it is possible to make good use of the present continuous for speaking about future plans.
Here are some examples of how you could use the present continuous tense to answer very common IELTS questions:
Are you a student or do you have a job?
Right now I’m a student but I’m working at a pharmacy this summer.
What is your major?
I’m studying economics at the moment but I’m switching to accounting next month.
Are you satisfied with your job?
Not really. I’m leaving next week to find something else.
What kind of job do you prefer in the future?
I’m going to England in the fall to work as a legal assistant at a law office.
What do you usually do on weekends and weekdays?
On weekends I usually go to my friend’s house and hang out. In fact, I’m going there this weekend.
What do you usually do with your friends?
We do many things together. We play football, and we go hiking into the mountains. Next week we’re going camping at a big reservoir.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m moving abroad next semester and then I’m starting a course at a good university.