The Continuous/Progressive Aspect

If you think there are too many verb forms in German, consider that Germans learning English have to deal with at least eight more:
Indicative Conditional
present he is walking he would be walking
past he was walking he would have been walking
perfect he has been walking
past perfect he had been walking
future he will be walking
future perfect he will have been walking

These are called the “continuous” or “progressive” aspects in English grammar,* and they’re difficult to learn, especially because they only work with certain verbs and in certain contexts. This is why non-native English speakers often make mistakes like I am needing your help with this or I was having to take a different route.

Fortunately for you, these forms don’t exist in German. Don’t make the mistake of trying to translate them directly with the present participle; Ich bin lesend for I am reading is incorrect.** Instead, you can just translate them with the equivalent non-continuous form, in this case the Präsens: Ich lese. This takes some getting used to, but usually it will be clear from the context when you’re using the verb in the progressive sense.

However, when that’s not specific enough, you have two other options:

  1. Add the word gerade after the verb. Ich lese gerade is a more exact way to say I’m reading than just Ich lese, which could also mean I read, I do read, etc.
  2. Use the contractions “am” (= an dem) or “beim” (= bei dem) and the gerund: Ich bin beim Lesen or Ich bin am Lesen. This is even more idiomatic (literally I’m at the reading) but it means the same thing. It’s more of an informal/spoken form than gerade and it used to be just a regional thing, so it will still sound wrong to some Germans, but it’s becoming fairly widespread. Try to avoid it in writing, though.

*There’s actually a slight difference between “continuous” and “progressive,” but they’re often used interchangeably and for our purposes they’re exactly the same thing.

**In the section on the Passive, we mentioned that a few past participles are so common that you can use them as normal adjectives, avoiding the werden form. Analagously, there are a few present participles that have also become adjectives, and these are exceptions to the rule above. Probably the most common example is dringend (urgent), which comes from the verb dringen (to force). A few others are entscheidend (decisive), spannend (exciting), and auffallend (conspicuous). These are often used as adverbs too; as you’ll see in the last section, there’s less of an adverb/adjective distinction in German than in English.