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Parler du présent

Speaking of the present

This morning, a listener asked about the present tense in French. In English, we frequently use two forms of the present but in French, one present tense is usually all that we need.

In English, we have two forms of the present, each of which is used very frequently.

The présent progressif (or présent continu) describes something that is happening right now, that is continuing as we speak.

  • What are you reading? I am reading an article about Russia.

The présent simple describes things that we do regularly or repeatedly:

  • What do you do at the weekend? I play tennis, I meet my friends in town, I relax.

    In English, these two forms of the present serve two very different functions, namely:

    • présent progressif/continu: to discuss something that is happening - and is continuing - right now
    • présent simple: to discuss things that happen regularly, repeatedly

In French, just one form of the verb - the présent simple - conveys both of the meanings, above:

  • Que lis-tu? Je lis un article sur la Russie.
  • Que fais-tu le week-end? Je joue au tennis, je retrouve mes amis en ville, je me détends.

être en train de [+ verbe], to really emphasise the ongoing nature of something that is happening right now

être en train de [+ verbe] means 'to be in the process of [doing]', so we can say:

  • Marie est en train de parler.
    Marie is talking (right now).
  • Que fais-tu? Je suis en train d'écrire un courriel à mon ami, Luc.
    What are you doing? I am writing an email to my friend, Luc (right now).

But, in practice, the French présent simple does the job of both the English simple present and present progressive.

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