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Though both end in -ing, the present participle form of a verb isn't the same as the present progressive aspect. These terms can be a little confusing, but the verb forms themselves should be familiar: we use them all the time in speaking and writing.
What They Are
What is a present participle?
The present participle is a verb form (made by adding -ing to the base) that can do the job of an adjective: "Carl signed up for the singing competition." (Note that singing modifies the noun competition.)
But wait, as the infomercials say: there's more that it can do!
What is the present progressive aspect?
The present progressive aspect is a verb construction made up of a present form of the verb "to be" plus … a present participle: "Carl is singing his heart out." (Note that the present tense is signaled by is, not by the participle singing.) The progressive usually conveys a sense of ongoing action (and is sometimes called the present continuous).
What They Do
A present participle by itself can't serve as the main verb of a sentence. For instance, "Sadie, tapping her cane to the music" is incomplete. In this example, "tapping" begins a present participial phrase that tells us something about the noun "Sadie." One way to make this word group into a sentence is by adding a subject (I) and a predicate (remember): "I remember Sadie, tapping her cane to the music." But there's another way to turn this fragment into a complete sentence.
A verb in the present progressive aspect may itself serve as the predicate of a sentence: "Sadie is tapping her cane to the music." As we've seen, the present progressive is used for continuing activities-that is, for actions taking place at the moment of speaking and for actions that go on for a short period of time.
A Quick Review
We could easily have a sentence that contains both a present participial phrase ("tapping her cane to the music") and a main verb in the present progressive ("is singing"):
Tapping her cane to the music, Sadie is singing loudly and out of key.
In this sentence, tapping is a present participle (unaccompanied by a form of the verb "to be") while is singing (a form of the verb "to be" plus a present participle) serves as the main verb in the present progressive aspect.
A Little Practice
For each of the sentences below, decide if the -ing word is simply a present participle serving as an adjective or part of a present progressive construction. You'll find the answers at the end of the exercise.
- The clown is crying.
- The children laugh at the crying clown.
- A flying squirrel landed on the porch rail.
- Stray dogs are barking tonight, and the Rowland boy is lighting firecrackers.
- Our neighbors' barking dog keeps us awake at night.
- The Hendersons are moving to the mountains of Washington state.
- "Happiness," Kinky said, "is a moving target: we're not happy until you're not happy."
Answers: 1. present progressive (is crying); 2. present participle (crying clown); 3. present participle (flying squirrel); 4. present progressive (are barking and is lighting); 5. present participle (barking dog); 6. present progressive (are moving); 7. present participle (moving target)