Asking questions in the present simple

When we learn a new language, we learn lots of new vocabulary. We quickly learn to make sentences. But it’s also important to ask questions. We need questions when we are travelling, at work or at school. This post focuses on making questions in the simple present tense.

Questions with a helping verb

Let’s take a simple sentence in the present tense:

I like chocolate.
Subject – verb – object

The main verb in this sentence is like.

To make a question, we also need a helping verb. The helping in the simple present is normally do. This goes at the beginning of the question, and the subject and the main verb swap places:

Do you like chocolate?
Helping verb – subject – main verb – object

Here is another example:

They work in Manchester.

Do they work in Manchester?

Here is an example with the main verb do. It sounds strange because we say do twice, once as the helping verb and once as the main verb.

I always do my homework.

Do you always do your homework?

He/she/it

If the subject in the sentence is he/she/it (a person or a thing) we add an ‘s’ to the verb.

She plays tennis.

To make a question we use the helping verb does but the main verb does not have an ‘s’. We only need one ‘s’ in the question.

Does she play tennis?

Most verbs use do as a helping verb in the simple present, but there are some special verbs with different rules.

Questions without a helping verb

The verb to be doesn’t have a helping verb. To make a question, just swap the verb and the subject:

I am happy.
Are you happy?

He is here.
Is he here?

They are finished.
Are they finished.

Modal verbs

Modal verbs include can, must, should, etc. They are used with other main verbs in the sentence. They are like helping verbs. If there is a modal verb, there is no extra verb helping verb in the question. We just swap the modal verb and the subject.

I can speak Spanish.
Can you speak Spanish?

They should be here.
Should they be here?

We will see the film.
Will we see the film?

With W question words

If we use a W question word (when, where, why, what, etc.), this comes at the beginning of the question. After that comes the helping verb do.

When do you start work?
Where do you live?
Why do you like the film?
What do you think about the new project?


Extra practice
It can feel strange to use "do" to make questions, but it's 
important to practise this form. Make a short list of verbs 
from your course. For each verb, say and then write a 
question with "do" as a helping verb. 

What questions do you often ask at work or at school?

Present simple or present continuous?

English is famous for having lots of tenses to choose from. The first tenses to learn are the present tenses, talking about now. In English, we have different ways of thinking about what ‘now’ means. In this post, I’ve explained some of the main differences between the present simple and present continuous and when to use these tenses.

Form

Let’s take a look at the form of these tenses first.

The present simple is constructed like this:

I work. – I don’t work. – Do you work?

She works. – She doesn’t work. – Does she work?

When we form negative sentences and questions, we use the helping verb do. When we talk about he/she/it, we add an ‘s’ to the main verb (or helping verb in negative sentences and questions).

The present continuous is constructed like this:

I am working. – I am not working. – Are you working?

She is working. – She is not working. – Is she working?

In these sentences, we always need the helping verb be and the ing form of the main verb.

Facts

When we talk about facts and things that are always true, we use the present simple. For example:

Water boils at 100 degrees.

The town is 20 miles from the coast.

He has dark hair.

Routine

When we talk about routines and repeated actions, we use the present simple. There are some signal words that show this, including often, usually, sometimes, rarely, never, every day, once a year, etc. If we answer the question “How often….?” we use also the present simple.

I leave the house at 7 am every morning.

We go to the cinema once a month.

He usually has meetings on Tuesdays.

The company closes over Christmas every year.

Actions right now

When we talk about actions taking place at this moment, we use the present continuous. Signal words for this include right now, at the moment, at this minute, today, this morning, just, etc. For example:

I’m doing my homework.

Right now I’m finishing the report.

At the moment I’m trying to call the hotline.

Today we’re discussing the budget.

Actions around now

We also use the present continuous for actions around now. This means something might not be happening at this moment, but it is a temporary situation still ongoing. For example:

I’m learning Spanish.

We’re working on the new project.

She’s staying with a friend for a month.

Changes

To describe changes taking place now, we use the present continuous. For example:

Our customers are using our online chat more often.

More people are cycling to work.

Young people are becoming more interested in politics.

Future plans

We can also use the present continuous to describe future plans that are set and have been planned, often with someone else. For example:

I’m going on holiday in June.

We’re visiting our sister at the weekend.

They’re going out for lunch tomorrow.

Summary

As a general rule, it could be helpful to remember that if something only happens once or for a short time, we use the present continuous, and if it happens more than once, we use the present simple.


Extra practice
Make a short list of verbs from your course. For each verb, say
and then write two sentences with that verb, one in the present
simple and one in the present continuous. For example: 'work' -->
'I work from nine to five every day.' / 'I am working on an 
important project at the moment.' 

Do you have any more tips and tricks to remember which tense to use?