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The Progressive in English Grammar

Progressives are words that express the progressive aspect including the perfect-progressive aspect. Progressives function within verb phrases functioning as predicates. Only one grammatical form can perform the function of progressive in English. The one grammatical form that can function as the progressive is the verb. Only the verb be, sometimes referred to as the progressive be, can function as a progressive.

The conjugations of the verb be are as follows:

Base Simple Present Simple Past Present Participle Past Participle
be am, is, are was, were being been

 

Do not confuse the progressive be with the passive be.

Active Present Progressive

The first use of the progressive be is within active present progressive constructions. The present progressive expresses an incomplete or ongoing action or state that began in the past and continues in the present and into the future. For example:

  • I am reading a new book.
  • My daughter is learning about colors.
  • We are traveling to St. Louis in May.
  • The neighbors are hosting a block party.

Active Past Progressive

The second use of the progressive be is within active past progressive constructions. The past progressive expresses an incomplete or ongoing action or state that began, continued, and ended in the past but over a longer period of time than the completed actions expressed by the simple past. For example:

  • I was knitting a baby blanket.
  • My husband was mowing the lawn.
  • You were studying molecular biology.
  • We were attending a fascinating lecture.

Active Present Perfect-Progressive

The third use of the progressive be is within active present perfect-progressive constructions. The present perfect-progressive expresses and emphasizes the consequences resulting from a previous but incomplete action or state that began in the past and continues into the present but may or may not continue into the future. For example:

  • She has been baking all morning.
  • What have you been doing all day?
  • We have been waiting here for hours!
  • I have been experiencing pain in my side.

Active Past Perfect-Progressive

The fourth use of the progressive be is within active past perfect-progressive constructions. The past perfect progressive expresses and emphasizes the consequences resulting from a previous incomplete or ongoing action or state that began in the past and continues up to a specific time. For example:

  • The teacher had been speaking when a student interrupted him.
  • Many animals had been dying until drastic measures were taken.
  • We had been sleeping when the storm started.
  • He had been contributing to the project.

Passive Present Progressive

The fifth use of the progressive be is within passive present progressive constructions. The present progressive passive expresses ongoing or incomplete actions or states in the present or near future while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

  • The car is being washed by my husband.
  • Football is not being played this year.
  • We are constantly being bugged by the neighbors.
  • The furniture is being moved this weekend.

Note that the progressive be precedes the passive be.

Passive Past Progressive

The sixth use of the progressive be is within passive past progressive constructions. The past progressive passive expresses ongoing or incomplete actions or states in the past while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

  • The vehicles were being washed by my husband.
  • Football was not being played last year.
  • I was constantly being bugged by our neighbor.
  • The furniture was being stored while the house was being painted.

Passive Present Perfect-Progressive

The seventh use of the progressive be is within passive present perfect-progressive constructions. The present perfect-progressive passive expresses incomplete or ongoing actions or states with present implications that began in the past and that may or may not continue into the future while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

  • I have been being yelled at all morning.
  • The toys have been being broken by the children.
  • The pamphlets have been being printed since last night.
  • Too much pollution has been being dumped in the river.

Passive Past Perfect-Progressive

The eighth use of the progressive be is within passive past perfect-progressive constructions. The past perfect-progressive passive expresses incomplete or ongoing actions or states that began in the past until a specific point in time while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

  • The child had been being yelled at by her mother yesterday.
  • Many animals had been being killed until the situation was addressed.
  • The cake had been being cake when the kitchen exploded.
  • Your document had been being printed just as the power went out.

The only grammatical form that can function as the progressive in the English language is the verb, specifically the verb be, or the progressive be.

References

Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.

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