In english there are two ways to express a present action:

I go
I am going

However, In German there is really only one way to express a present action:

Ich gehe

If English is a Germanic language, why does English have the present continuous ("I am walking") while German does not?

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    The question might be formulated in terms of progressive aspect: Why does English have progressive aspect but German does not? Formulated like this, the question expresses an assumption that is not entirely true, since German, like most languages, has a means of expressing that an action is in progress, e.g. Ich bin dabei zu gehen 'I am in the process of going'. Closely related languages differ in numerous ways, and finding out exactly what caused divergence is a difficult question that one approaches by examining the historical development of the language. Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 22:48
  • @TimOsborne Good call. I used your wording for the question title since the issue is really about English and German, and the former title did not reflect this.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 23:28
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    "I go" normally doesn't express a present action but instead a habitual aspect. It's only when telling a story: "I go to the park and I climb a tree and I look out..." and even then it's an unusual and marked way of speaking.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 4:26
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    Why the basic form of the verb is used mainly for habitual aspect would be an interesting question!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 4:26
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    Once English had both a present and present progressive, it is not surprising that the present tense mutated in meaning, as the basic definition of the present makes it primarily imperfective or progressive in meaning (that's why there was no present perfective in PIE). Commented Mar 30, 2014 at 6:05

6 Answers 6


In linguistics, “why” is usually a bad question. Actually, in several Indo-European languages the old present tense has died out completely and been replaced by the present participle plus copula. This has happened in Hindi and other North Indian languages. There are similar things in other language families, e.g. in Aramaic. English seems to have gone halfway in this direction: the inherited present tense and the participle+copula exist side by side, but they have been differentiated semantically.


Actually, German has even more ways to express progressive aspect:

Ich bin am Gehen (am-Progressiv, it becomes more and more accepted)
Ich bin beim Gehen (competitor to am-Progressiv)
Ich bin im Gehen (very limited as it cannot be used for every verb and context. "im Gehen" means that you're about to go (ie. when someone calls you as you are about to leave))
Ich bin dabei zu gehen
Ich gehe gerade

The am-Progressiv is regarded to be highly grammaticalized with the least restrictions while dabei/gerade work more on a lexical level.

The difference is that German is in general far more lenient on which tense, aspect etc. you have to use. Therefore, progressive aspect is not as obvious in German as it is in English.


As Veredomon already explained, German does have ways to express the progressive aspect, and even more than one. The real difference is that English, like the Celtic languages, has the unusual feature that marking the progressive aspect is not optional. Here is why it makes sense that German hasn't developed obligatory progressive marking (yet?).

Many languages develop a way to express the progressive aspect because often you want to stress that something is going on right now. Once there is an established way of expressing that, people tend to generalise it further and further for much the same reason that people say brilliant or tremendous instead of just plain good. Example: "I promise I will pay tomorrow. I am not just promising it, the paying tomorrow is such an irrevocable fact that one could say I am practically paying right now. (Though of course I can't because I can't access my money yet.) You could say I am paying, though not right now but tomorrow. That's it: I am paying tomorrow!"

Among other ways of marking the progressive aspect, German and Dutch have a construction that is similar to one that may be the origin of the English progressive as there are some similar examples in Old English. (Old English didn't have a progressive like modern English does, but a few sentences have survived that look suspiciously like the Dutch/English progressive. I can't find the source right now, but I think one example was, in literal translation, "[be] on the hunting".)

  • I am cooking.
  • Ik ben aan het koken.
  • Ich bin am [= an dem] kochen.

So literally, in Dutch and German you say "I am at the cooking". Even for the literal translation I used the gerund/present participle in English instead of the Dutch/German infinitive because in each case that's how the language forms nouns from verbs.

The Dutch and German constructions are a bit wordy, but straightforward enough. I believe the main thing that prevents them from being used so often that they become obligatory where applicable is that they don't generalise well to more complicated cases:

  • I am cooking the food.
  • Ik ben het eten aan het koken.
  • ? Ich bin das Essen am kochen.

This is where it gets weird, because literally, in Dutch and German you say "I am the food at the cooking". (Since het eten / das Essen is literally the eating, we could even translate this as "I am the eating at the cooking".) In Dutch this is already firmly established. In German it's definitely colloquial, and even when it is used colloquially, it indicates that the speaker comes from the Ruhr district, a large and populous area near the Dutch border.

It's unlikely that the progressive will become obligatory in Dutch and German before it is simplified a lot. There is already a construction that is structurally essentially the same as the English progressive:

  • I am someplace to cook.
  • Ik ben koken.
  • Ich bin kochen.

If we consider cases such as "I am skiing" / "I am someplace to ski" or "I am hunting" / "I am someplace to hunt", it appears that semantically this second construction is close enough to the progressive that it might acquire a progressive meaning. But for now the two are held separate, and the simple construction is currently blocking the simplification of the progressive by simply dropping aan het / am. I.e. you can't simplify the progressive that way because if you do you are not extending a language so as to make new sequences of words grammatical, but you are saying something that already has a different meaning. By the way, this construction may well be at the origin of the strange object placement in the Dutch (and dialectal German) progressive:

  • I am someplace to cook the food.
  • Ik ben het eten koken.
  • Ich bin das Essen kochen.

Now that this parallelism exists, it is natural to interpret aan het / am as a progressive marker. Which interpretation of course makes it even less likely to be dropped when expressing a progressive.

Due to these problems, the most common way of expressing the progressive aspect in Dutch and German is still by adding adverbs such as nu / gerade (right now):

  • I am cooking the food.
  • Ik kook nu het eten.
  • Ich koche gerade das Essen.

This way of marking the progressive aspect is very unlikely to become obligatory because (to my knowledge) there is no precedent of obligatory adverbs in Germanic languages.

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    Some notes: "Ich bin kochen" is Absentive. It means that you left the place you were expected to be to cook somewhere else and that you will return. The old progressive was Ich bin kochend, which is sein + Present Participle. It will be understood but is rarely used. Am-Progressiv is common in Switzerland and Baden-Württemberg as well, I don't know about Bavaria. It is clearly not the case that you can place someone who uses it into the Ruhrpott area. However, in Ruhrpott you'll hear larger sentences like "Ich bin den Brief an meine Mutter am Schreiben".
    – Veredomon
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 12:07
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    I certainly agree that the am progressive is in wider use and only the extension for transitive verbs is restricted to a certain area. What I wrote is consistent with this, though I now see it can also be construed the way you may have done. Or do you intend to say that only the ditransitive case is restricted in this way? I am from the South-West of Germany, and I am pretty sure that even the transitive am progressive is by no means normal in this region and that written German using it will automatically be located in the Ruhrpott by people here.
    – user4938
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 14:41
  • Regarding the absentive: Thanks for bringing this up. I had not heard of the absentive before, and it's very interesting. My instinctive reaction is that the term is slightly misleading at least for German since it is much less about the absence in one place than about the presence in another for a purpose indicated by the verb.
    – user4938
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 14:50
  • PS regarding the transitive am progressive: My instincts regarding this may well be wrong or at least not generalisable in the way I thought, as they contradict the maps in this paper: limiar.clul.ul.pt/proceedings/workshop/25_ramelli.pdf . Or it may be a more subtle effect than I thought: Maybe "Ich bin das Essen am kochen" is blocked by the more elegant "Ich bin am Essen kochen" in my region, whereas for "Ich bin gerade die Uhr am reparieren" there is no such work-around.
    – user4938
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 15:01
  • Absentive is mainly about absence. Meine Frau ist kochen implies that she is absent, hence *Meine Frau ist drüben am Herd kochen is wrong, as it gives a location, but implies that she is close.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Dec 23, 2014 at 15:06

This might be of interest: Early Contect between Celtic and English (https://www.uni-due.de/IERC/early_contact.htm(

"The concern of the present section is with the development of the progressive form in English. There are basically three views on this (Filppula 2002b): (i) it was an independent development in English (Curme 1912, Nickel 1966, Visser 1963-73, Mitchell 1985), (ii) it arose under the influence of Latin, perhaps via French (Mossé 1938), and (iii) it results from contact with Celtic (Keller 1925, Dal 1952, Preußler 1956, Wagner 1959, Braaten 1967, Ó Corráin 1997).

"As has been pointed out by many authors previously (see Mittendorf and Poppe 2000: 119) a type of progressive structure in which a gerund was governed by a preposition existed in Old English: ic wæs on huntunge ‘I was hunting’ (Braaten 1967: 173). This type of structure is also found in vernacular German, with an infinitive, as in Ich bin am Schreiben [I am at write-INFINITIVE] ‘I am writing’.

"In this context a further consideration is necessary which Mittendorf and Poppe deal with in their examination of the progressive (2000: 120-2). This is the typological perspective. As noted by other scholars such as Comrie (1976: 98) and Bybee and Dahl (1989: 77) progressive aspect is frequently expressed — in many unrelated languages (Mittendorf and Poppe, loc. cit.) — by means of a locative structure meaning to be ‘at’ and ‘in’ an activity. Furthermore, the step from structures like ic wæs on huntunge to I was hunting is small, involving only the deletion of the preposition. The fully developed progressive form appears in Middle English, but the apparent time delay between the contact with Celtic in the Old English period and the surfacing of the progressive later can be accounted for by the strong tradition of the written standard in Old English and should not be given as an argument against Celtic influence as some authors are inclined to do, see Nickel (1966: 300), for instance, and Dal (1952: 113) who rightly explains the time gap.

"The progressive is found in all Celtic languages and is clearly represented by the Irish structure ag + verbal noun as in Tá mé ag caint léi, lit. ‘is me at talking with-her’. This in itself is a good example of a locative expression for the progressive aspect and is typologically parallel to the Old English ic wæs on huntunge.

"In summary one can say here that in both Old English and Celtic one had a progressive aspect, realised by means of a locative expression and with a similar functional range (Mittendorf and Poppe 2000: 139). Both languages maintained this aspect and English lost the locative preposition and increased the syntactic flexibility and range of the structure, perhaps under the supportive influence of contact with Celtic."

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    Given the fact that there are only a very small number of Celtic loanwords in English, all these theories about Celtic influence on English syntax are highly tenuous.
    – fdb
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 21:54
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    @fdb - The small number of Celtic loanwords in English is not in itself a solid reason for dismissing the idea that Celtic may have influenced English syntax. The Celtic idea has been suggested by a number of mainstream linguists.
    – tunny
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 22:16

That English may have borrowed this from Old French's use (before 17th Century) of the gerondif, e.g. est parlant, after being influenced by Celtic, only to have modern French in the 17th Century discard it by the authoritative grammarian Malherbe's ruling it to be 'rustique' could explain both English's having the progressive based on tense forms of the copula 'to be' + imperfect participle (present participle) and French's now having lost it.


German just continues the ancestral state. It shares that with the Scandinavian languages.There is little to explain there. German has a competing system with adverbs like "gerade", "weiter" and "los", which allow you to express such things but are facultative. Hence there is no pressing need for speakers to develop more means of expressing it.

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