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Whether we’re writing blog posts, brand content, or reports, many of us have a tendency to make our writing wordier than it needs to be. That is, we tend to use more words than we really need to use to say what we want to say. In some cases, this wordiness comes from using “fancier” verb tenses that what a sentence calls for. For example, take a look at this sentence:

“Customers are always looking for the best deal.”

You may be looking at this sentence and thinking that it doesn’t look particularly long or fancy. After all, it isn’t even a full line long. Although we agree that this sentence isn’t as long as it could be, it’s still longer than it needs to be. Why? It uses the progressive tense (or continuous tense) instead of the present tense. Because it’s so common for people to use the progressive tense when the present tense is actually a better fit, we’re going to talk about the difference between these tenses today.

Although you may think that the present tense is used to describe events in the present, this isn’t entirely true. Instead, we use the present tense when we’re talking about habits or things that happen repeatedly on an ongoing basis. For example, we use the present tense in sentences like these:

  • “Ruby walks to work.”
  • “ABC Inc. uses Instagram and Twitter as part of its social media strategy.”
  • “Sky Airlines often tries to charge more.”

As you can see, these sentences describe actions that take place repeatedly over a period of time. Walking to work is something that Ruby currently does, even if she isn’t doing it right at this moment. Similarly, ABC Inc. uses Twitter and Instagram as part of its current social media strategy, but there isn’t necessarily an employee from the company who’s logged in to these platforms right now.

In comparison, we use the progressive tense to describe something that is in progress right now. We typically use it to describe actions that have some sort of fixed start time and end time. For example, we use the progressive tense in sentences like these:

  • “Ruby is walking in the door.”
  • “Roland, a social media intern at the ABC company, is posting the new logo on Instagram.”
  • “Sky Airlines is experiencing a computer outage right now.”

These sentences describe a single action that is unfolding right now. Right at this minute, Ruby is walking through the door, Roland is posting on Instagram, and Sky Airlines is coping with a system-wide computer crash. Progressive tense sentences typically have some form of the verb “to be” (e.g., “is” or “are”) that comes before the main verb, so you can spot progressive tense sentences by looking for sentences that contain these helping verbs.

Although the difference between present tense vs. progressive tense may seem simple here, it’s common for people to forget these differences when they actually get down to writing something. For this reason, if you take a look at something you’ve written recently, you may find that you’ve written something in progressive tense when you should have used present tense instead. That is, you may have written “customers are always looking for the best deal” instead of “customers always look for the best deal.”

It’s true that there’s probably some sort of customer out there right now who’s trying to score a great deal. However, think about what the customer sentence describes; it describes a general way that customers tend to behave. In other words, it describes a habit that customers have. And what did we say about habits? We describe them using the present tense instead of the progressive tense.

Using the present tense instead of the progressive tense to describe habits isn’t just grammatically correct. It can also help you write more concisely. Take a look at the present tense and progressive tense versions of the customer sentence:

  • Progressive tense: “Customers are always looking for the best deal.” (8 words; 40 characters)
  • Present tense: “Customers always look for the best deal.” (7 words; 34 characters)

It may not seem like much to knock your word count down by one word or your character count down by six characters, but if you make this change throughout a piece of website copy or long-form content, the savings can really add up. And if you’re crafting something short like a tweet, you know that every character counts.

In sum, use the present tense when you’re describing something that happens routinely and save progressive tense for times when you’re talking about an action that’s happening right now.
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Want more tips on how to boost your writing game? Check out our post on the 6 reasons why people are weak writers and what you can do to avoid them.
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Present tense vs. progressive tense: Commonly misused verbs
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