We use verb tense to indicate the time of the action of the verb. Of course, the basic meat-and-potato tenses are past, present, and future. GMAT grammar would be very easier if these were the only tenses you had to know. But life is complicated, and therefore so is grammar. This article examines a variation on these tenses: the progressive tenses. The progressive tenses emphasize that the action discussed is in process, is happening right at the time specified. Another way to say it: the emphasis of the progressive tenses is simultaneity.
The Present Progressive
Consider the difference between these two sentences.
1) I walk to work. [simple present tense]
2) I am walking to work. [present progressive tense]
This is one of the hardest distinctions for folks learning English as a second language to master, because is absent as a verb form in many other languages. The first describes a general condition that is true at the present time. The implication of sentence #1 is that I walk to work every day, that this is repeated and ongoing condition in my life. Sentence #2 carries the implication that, at the very moment I speak it, I am performing the act of walking to work: for example, if a friend called on my cell phone while I was in the process of walking to work, I would say sentence #2. The emphasis of the present progressive is on the fact that articulating the action and performing the action are simultaneous.
Notice that the form of the present progressive is the present form of the verb “to be” plus the present participle —- the –ing participle.
The Past Progressive
Often, when describing a past action, it’s enough to say that the action happened.
3) Yesterday evening, I walked my dog.
That’s the simple past tense. That simply makes clear that the action happened in the past. Sometimes, we want to make an additional distinction clearer: we want to make clear exactly when the action was happening, or make clear that two things happened at the same time. For example:
4) At 7:30 pm last night, I was walking my dog.
5) Yesterday evening, as I was walking my dog, my broker called.
The underlined verbs are in the past progressive. In both cases, we are emphasizing that the performance of the action was simultaneous with something else — with the clock time of 7:30 pm or with the phone-call from the broker.
Notice the form of the past progressive is the past tense of the verb “to be” plus the present participle.
The Future Progressive
This is a relatively unusual case, which is somewhat unlikely to appear on the GMAT Sentence Correction. The distinction is analogous to that in the past tenses. Sometimes, it’s enough to say that an action will take place.
6) Tomorrow, I will visit my grandmother.
This is the simple future tense. This indicates only that, sometime in the 24 hour period of tomorrow, I will perform the action of visiting my grandmother. Under certain circumstances, we to make further specifications: we want to indicate either exactly when the action will take place or that two future actions will happen at the same time.
7) Tomorrow at 2:30 pm, I will be visiting my grandmother.
8) Tomorrow afternoon, when my roommate will be practicing for his opera performance, I will be visiting my grandmother.
The underlined verbs are in the future progressive. In both cases, we are emphasizing that the performance of the action will be simultaneous with something else: in the first, the action will be simultaneous with a clock time of 2:30 pm; in the second, the two actions, visiting grandma and practicing opera, are simultaneous. In fact, the subordinate conjunction “when” already emphasizes simultaneity, so some folks would argue that having both verbs in the future progressive with the word “when” is redundant, and should be emended to one of the following:
8a) Tomorrow afternoon, when my roommate practices for his opera performance, I will be visiting my grandmother.
8b) Tomorrow afternoon, when my roommate practices for his opera performance, I will visit my grandmother.
We can dispense with one or both of the present progressive verbs, because the word “when” already carries the connotation of simultaneity. These issues, deciding between sentences like 8 vs. 8a vs. 8b, is much more arcane than anything the GMAT Sentence Correction will ask you.
Here are a couple GMAT-like Sentence Correction Practice Questions involving progressive tenses.
1) Mozart himself was a piano virtuoso, and the piano parts of his piano concerti, especially the mature work composed in 1784 and after, have astonishingly difficult finger work that having demanded incomparable technique to produce the required elegance and precision.
(A) that having demanded
(B) which demanded
(C) that had demanded
(D) that demands
(E) which is demanding
2) Punctuated equilibrium is a biological theory that regards evolution not as a gradual process by which one species slowly and continuously transforms into another, rather a process in which species were remaining stable for long periods and then have dramatic change in isolated short bursts.
(A) rather a process in which species were remaining stable for long periods and then have dramatic change
(B) but as a process in which species remain stable for long periods and change dramatically
(C) but a process in which species remain stable for long periods and then have dramatic change
(D) yet as a process in which species remained stable for long periods and change dramatically
(E) but also as a process in which species were remaining stable for long periods and were changing dramatically
Practice Question Explanations
1) First, the “that-which” distinction, about which you can read more here. As a general rule, when a clause is separated by commas from the rest of the sentence, it should use “which”, but when it follows the noun modified without the break of a comma, it should use “that.” That strongly suggests that (B) and (E) are not correct.
Let’s look at the verb tenses:
(A) having demanded = participle, not a verb at all = automatically wrong
(B) demanded = verb in simple past tense
(C) had demanded = verb in past perfect tense
(D) demands = verb in simple present tense
(E) is demanding = verb in present progressive tense
In this situation, the Mozart piano concertos exist, and they have difficult finger work – in the present, this is the case. This difficult finger work demands incomparable technique, any time that a pianist sits down to play one of these concerti. It is a general present condition.
All of this happens at the present time, and could happen today, so the past tense (B) is out.
The past perfect tense indicate an action that happens before another past action, so this is complete inappropriate. (C) is right out.
We do not mean to imply that, right as this sentence is spoken, someone happens to be playing a Mozart concerto right at that moment. That could be true by coincidence, but it is not the intent of the sentence to emphasize that simultaneity, so (E) is out.
That leaves (D), the simple present tense, as the verb that most aptly describes any action that is generally true in present times though not necessarily true at this precise moment. Answer = D.
2) First of all, the conjunction. The correct idiom is “not X but Y.” We need the second half of the sentence to begin with the word “but. (A) and (D) do not complete this idiom correct, so they are wrong. The construction “not X but also Y” confuses the “not X but Y” idiom with the “not only X but also Y” idiom — “not X but also Y” does not construct either correctly, so (E) is wrong.
Furthermore, the X and Y must be parallel. The first part begins “as a gradual process by which …”, so the second part, after the “but”, must also begin with “as” — only (B) does this, so that’s the correct answer.
Notice also the verb tenses. (D) has a past tense in parallel with a present tense, so that’s wrong. Similarly, (A) has the past progressive in parallel with the present tense, so that’s also wrong. (E) has both verbs in the past progressive tense, but that’s unusual, because what we’re discussing is an ongoing process, how evolution continues to take place in the natural world. Both (B) and (C) have the simple present test, which is correct and which mirrors the simple present test of “transforms” before the underlined part. (C) does have the awkward wording, “have dramatic change”, instead of “change dramatically” — as a general rule, if you have a choice — action as noun vs. action as verb — always choose the latter. Actions should be expressed as verbs as much as possible. Again, this makes (B) the best answer.
Answer = B.