The Progressive: Activities and Places

03 October, 2019

Imagine you want to talk about what someone is doing. Perhaps you want to add information about where that action is happening.

This week on Everyday Grammar, we will explore how English speakers use progressive verbs with expressions of place. Here are two examples. You might hear someone say, "He is working outside." Or the person could say, "He is outside working."

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Sentences like these will be the subject of our report today.

But first, let us begin with a few definitions.


Progressive verbs show that an action is in progress during a certain period of time. Progressive verbs are sometimes called continuous verbs.

The form of the progressive is be + -ing. This is known as the present participle. If you want to learn more about progressive verbs, you can find a report about them on website.

Expressions of place are words or groups of words that show where something is happening. Examples include phrases or terms with the words "in," "on," or "at" – such as "in her office," "at the book store," and so on.

Expressions of place can sometimes move in a sentence, and even come in between progressive verbs, as we will find.


Imagine the following situation. You are watching a television show about an American family. Perhaps the actors say the following lines:

1: What is Dad doing?

2: He is sleeping upstairs.

Now imagine the exchange is a little different, as in:

1: Where is Dad?

2: He is upstairs sleeping.

You might notice that the second speaker used the exact same words in both examples, but the words were in a different order.

You heard, "He is sleeping upstairs" and "He is upstairs sleeping."

In other words, the expression of place comes between the auxiliary verb "be," and the –ing form. In our examples, the word upstairs comes between is and sleeping.

Now, let's consider a more difficult example.

Imagine you hear the actors in the same fictional television show say the following:

1: What was Dad doing when you came home?

2: He was working on a project in the garage.

Now consider the following:

1: Where was Dad when you came home?

2: He was in the garage working on a project.

Once again, you might notice that the speaker changed the order of the words. The expression of place in the garage came between the words was and working.

Small Difference

You might be asking yourself if there is a difference in meaning in the two sentences.

The basic meaning is the same. However, there is a small difference in the focus.

So, if we examine our earlier example:

1: What was Dad doing when you came home?

2: He was working on a project in the garage.

The focus of both the question and the answer is on what the Dad was doing.

The other example went like this:

1: Where was Dad when you came home?

2 : He was in the garage working on a project.

The focus of both the question and the answer is on where Dad is.

If this subject seems like it might be difficult, do not fear. To begin with, you can try to find examples that you hear in movies or television shows. Ask yourself if the expression of place comes after the progressive verb, or between the auxiliary verb "be" and the –ing form.

This idea will help you understand sentences that might at first seem strange to you. But these sentences can become clearer if you find the progressive verb and expression of place.

That's all for now. Next week at 10 a.m., we will be in this production studio recording a new Everyday Grammar.

I'm Alice Bryant.

And I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

upstairs – adv. on or to a higher floor of a building

auxiliary – adj. providing additional support or help

fictional – adj. make-believe; not real

garage – n. a building or part of a building in which a car or other vehicle is kept

basic – adj. simple; required by everyone or everything

focus –n. a subject that is being discussed or studied : the subject on which people's attention is focused — usually singular

studio – n. a room where an artist works

a.m.abbreviation before high noon; the first 12 hours of the day

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