There's No French Present Progressive Tense: Do This Instead

  • Adrien Renault
    Written byAdrien Renault
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There's No French Present Progressive Tense: Do This Instead

Right now, you’re reading this guide.

You’re looking at your screen and you’re concentrating. You’re learning about the present progressive in French.

What is similar about all of these actions? They all use the present progressive tense.

Now, if you’re learning French, you might have been confused about how to construct this already.

And you might have found it a challenge to distinguish between the present simple and the present progressive in French.

If you need clarification, read on.

But let’s start with a critical question…

Does the French language have a present progressive tense?

The short answer is: no.

There isn’t a particular, designated verb tense for describing a present progressive action in French.

Technically, it’s the present tense that’s used to describe actions in the present progressive.

What this means is that if the context is perfectly clear, and that the action taking place is a present progressive or present continuous action, you can use the present tense to describe it.

For example, if you are at home listening to music and your sibling asks you what you’re doing, you can respond by saying:

Listen to audio

J’écoute de la musique.

I’m listening (I listen) to music.

Because the simple present can be used to describe present continuous actions, it might be a little bit confusing to learn the present progressive in French.

But, guess what?

There is another way to describe that an action is in progress or is occurring, which might help you understand it slightly more.

We’ve described this further down the page.

What is the present progressive in French?

The present progressive, also referred to as the present continuous is a sentence or description that describes an action that is ongoing.

A present progressive sentence can either be positive or negative; you can either declare that an action is taking place or that it isn’t.

When is the present progressive used in French?

The present progressive is strictly used to describe that something is occurring or in the middle of happening, or is in process.

Think of all those -ing verbs that belong to the English language: cycling, running, eating, breathing, living, etc. and you’ve got a pretty good understanding of what the present progressive is and when it’s used in English.

The present progressive in French is used to describe similar events that are taking place right now.

Even though you wouldn’t conjugate the sentence in the same way as the English verbs used above in French, the present progressive in French is used in similar circumstances.

What’s the difference between the present progressive and the simple present?

The main difference between the present progressive and the simple present in French is that whereas the simple present describes an action that is a habit, you mustn’t use the present progressive for habitual actions.

Let’s consider the difference between “I am eating” and “I eat at school every day”.

In French, for the first sentence we can use the present progressive, but for the second sentence, we cannot use the present progressive because this is a habitual action that occurs every day.

Instead we would use the present simple tense here:

Listen to audio

Je mange à l’école tous les jours.

I eat at school every day.

Forming the positive present progressive in French

So, now we know when the present progressive in French is used, here’s how to use it.

If you need to describe an action that is taking place and is in progress, the formula you’re going to need in French is être + en train de + a verb in the infinitive tense.

For example, if you wanted to say “I am reading”, you would need to use and modify the formula above by conjugating the verb être, using the phrase en train de and placing a verb at the end of the sentence in its infinitive form.

The result is the following sentence:

Listen to audio

Je suis en train de lire.

I am reading.

Here we have conjugated the verb être in the first person, giving us je suis.

We have followed this up with the phrase en train de and completed the sentence with an infinitive verb lire (meaning “to read” in English). It really is that simple.

This same formula can apply to any subject of the sentence.

Say you wanted to mention to someone that they are talking too loudly.

Conjugating the verb être differently would be required, but you’d just follow the same formula that you have above:

Listen to audio

Tu es en train de parler trop fort.

You're speaking too loud.

Here we have conjugated the verb être in the second person, giving us tu es, we have followed this with the phrase en train de and completed the sentence with the infinitive verb parler.

Forming the negative present progressive in French

As mentioned, there is a way to explain that a present progressive action is not happening in French.

Let’s look at an example first to see the negative present progressive in French.

If your French teacher has explicitly told you not to eat in class, and you’re chewing a caramel you might deny it by saying:

Listen to audio

Je ne suis pas en train de manger.

I am not eating.

When we look at the sentence, we can see that it differs to the positive present progressive.

The words ne and pas must be used, just as when we’re negating a sentence in French.

Ne follows the pronoun je, and pas follows the conjugated être verb. On that note, let’s talk about the verb être.

Forming the present progressive: How do we conjugate the verb _être _in the present simple?

A critical part of forming the present progressive in French is knowing how to conjugate the verb être in the present tense, and the first thing to recognize is that être has an irregular stem for the different personal pronouns.

This means that when you conjugate this verb in the present tense, you’ll need to memorise each of the verb forms.

Take a look at the table below:

French PronounFrench Simple Present Conjugated Verb êtreEnglish Translation
Je/J’SuisI am
TuEsYou're
Il, Elle, OnEstHe/She/It is
NousSommesWe are
VousÊtesYou're
Ils, EllesSontThey all are

What you’ll also need to keep in mind is that unlike Spanish verb conjugation, you must put the pronoun before the verb when conjugating the verb être to describe a present progressive action.

Since this is similar to the English rule, where we place the pronoun first, you might not find this too challenging.

How to ask what someone is doing: Present progressive questions

The other important thing you might want to do is to ask a question using the present progressive structure we’ve described just above. If you wanted to ask someone what they’re eating, you’d need to use the interrogative form.

But the form still uses the present progressive phrase en tren de.

Here’s an example of the interrogative form needed to ask what someone is eating:

Listen to audio

Qu’es-tu en train de manger ?

What are you eating?

Remember, you can easily modify this interrogative and change the subject of the sentence or even the action of the sentence.

If you wanted to ask “what are we eating?” simply replace the pronoun with a different subject:

Listen to audio

Que sommes-nous en train de manger ?

What are we eating?

And if you wanted to ask about an entirely different action, just change the verb but keep it in the infinitive form:

Listen to audio

Qu’es-tu en train de parler ?

What are you talking about?

Using the past progressive in French: Conjugating être in the past tense

In some situations, you might want to describe an event that was ongoing but occurred in the past.

A typical example of this in English would be “we were speaking”, or “we were running”. In these situations, you’ll need to be able to conjugate the verb être in the imperfect tense, so here’s how to do it!

French PronounFrench Imperfect Tense Verb êtreEnglish Translation
Je/J’ÉtaisI was
TuÉtaisYou were
Il, Elle, OnÉtaitHe/She/It was
NousÉtionsWe were
VousÉtiezYou were
Ils, EllesÉtaientThey all were

So, if you wanted to say “we were speaking”, just replace the verb être with the imperfect past tense and stick with the formula above:

Listen to audio

Nous étions en train de parler.

We were speaking.

Using the past progressive negative in French

We’ll end this post with a tip on using the past progressive negative form: it’s easy!

It’s the same as the negative form of the present progressive positive form described earlier on, but you’ll just need to replace the verb être with the imperfect tense.

Here’s an example to refresh your memory:

Listen to audio

Ne nous pas étions en train de parler.

We were not speaking.

Start using the present progressive in French

With a little bit of practice, the present progressive will become effortless.

You’ll just need to focus on a little bit of verb conjugation and grow accustomed to the formulas for positive, negative and interrogative sentence structures.

Practice conjugating the verb “to be”, or être in French and watch out for the irregular stem changes that can be tricky to remember.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, practice using different subject pronouns and different tenses, like the imperfect past tense. Mix it up!


Any advice you’d offer for learning the present progressive in French?

Comment below!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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