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They are making cars. Really?

What’s the difference between He plays football and He is playing golf?

The person we are talking about is obviously a professional footballer, but right now he is active on a golf course.

In English there are two ways of expressing an action in the present tense: the present simple and the present continuous.

Present simple

We use the present simple when we talk about

– a permanent (or nearly permanent) situation:

My uncle lives in Spain.
He works as a tourist guide.

– what we do regularly, habits:

Her brother collects rare books.
I drink black coffee in the morning.

– what is always true:

Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
A Tesla coil produces high-voltage electric pulses.

– what happens in a book or a film:

The two friends plan a robbery.
At the end she marries a millionaire.

Present continuous

We use the present continuous when we talk about

– things that are happening just now:

The water is boiling, so you’d better find the teabags.
Look, it’s raining!

– a temporary situation:

My uncle is staying at a small hotel during his visit to Paris.
He is practising his French.

– temporary or annoying habits:

I’m spending too much time on Facebook these days.
Mum is always complaining about the mess in my room.

– what we see in a photo:

Here we are waiting for the limousine.
The children are waving to grandma from the balcony.

To sum up:

Use the -ing form when you write about what is going on temporarily and the simple form when you write about what happens regularly.

The same applies to the past:

Past simple

My uncle worked in a bookshop.
I ran to school every morning.

Past continuous

They were running to catch the train.
What were you doing at seven o’clock last night? I tried to call you.

A few people are running in an underground station i London. The image illustrates the present continuous They were running to catch the train.
They were running to catch the train.

Often past simple and past continuous are used in the same sentence to say that something happened in the middle of something else going on:

I was having breakfast when the doorbell rang.
When Susan came home, her husband was cooking dinner.

In the last example, her husband had started cooking before Susan came home. If he started cooking after she arrived, we would say 

When Susan came home, her husband cooked dinner.

So, to say They are making cars would suggest that the activity is only temporary. Production in a car factory is a long-term activity, and therefore we must write They make cars.

Non-native writers of English may tend to overuse the -ing form. Read more here.

Can you write ‘I were’ instead of ‘I was’?

Yes, you can and in some cases you should.

Was and were are past forms of the verb be, an irregular verb that is extremely common.

We use was in the first person singular (I) and the third person singular (he, she, it):

I was tired and sat down in my favorite armchair.
She was in the kitchen when there was a knock on the door.
It was the first Tuesday in April.

The other persons take the form were:

Were you happy with the result?
We were together.
They were down by the river.

Was and were are also auxiliary verbs, that is, they are followed by another verb:

I was having a nap when you called.
Was he really doing that?
I thought you were going to help her.

It is possible to use were also with I, he, she and it. We do so in situations that are not real. It can be a hypothetical situation (usually with the word if):

Even if he were my boss, I wouldn’t do it.
If I were you, I would definitely accept the offer.
If this were true, you could stay there for a whole month.

It can be wishful thinking:

I wish I were in Rome again.
How I wish that she were here!

Tourists outside the Colosseum in Rome, Italy
I wish I were in Rome again…

This form of the verb is called the subjunctive mood. The were form with you, we and they is also subjunctive in hypothetical or counterfactual statements, even if it does not differ from the indicative form used in ordinary sentences:

If they were younger, I would offer them a job (subjunctive).
They were already there when I arrived (indicative).

You should avoid writing *I wish that she was here. (For the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text.)

How to use the semicolon

Many writers seem to be unsure of how to use the semicolon.

This image shows what a semicolon looks like.
A combination of a comma and a full stop

The semicolon looks like a combination of a full stop and a comma, and that is an indication of how it is used. Like the comma and the full stop, the semicolon separates clauses. The semicolon links two independent clauses that are closely related. In other words, we use a semicolon between two complete sentences to indicate that what they say is of equal importance. The semicolon can replace words such as and and but.

Finally, Tom found his bike behind the garage; it was rusty and the tires were flat.
This method is based on many years of research; particularly important are the findings from four studies in the heavy vehicles industry.
The potential variables are numerous; they include everything that might influence the evaluation criteria.

You cannot have a semicolon after a dependent clause beginning with words such as since, although, when, because, etc.

Since she had visited the city several times, she knew all the tourist spots.
She had visited the city several times; she knew all the tourist spots.

To avoid confusion, use a semicolon to separate groups in an enumeration.

Among the cities in the study were Hamburg, Germany; Milan, Italy; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Helsinki, Finland.

Don’t use the semicolon where you must have a colon!

He had three main interests: vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

You cannot write *He had three main interests; vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture (For the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text). After a semicolon there must be a complete, independent, clause with a subject and a verb. So you could write: He had three main interests; they were vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

Which English should you use?

American English or British English? Or perhaps Oxford spelling? Does it matter which language you choose? Do your readers care?

Obviously, if you write for an American audience, you should write American English. And if you want to send a paper to a British journal, you should use UK English, which is another name for British English. Always check with the publisher or read the style guide of the journal. However, it is crucial that you are consistent and write your whole text in one and the same language.

When you write a doctoral thesis or a novel, the choice of language is yours. Only, as I said above, be consistent.

If you go for American English, use American spelling and write labor instead of labour, center instead of centre, catalog instead of catalogue, fulfill instead of fulfil, traveling instead of travelling, and so on. Use a z instead of an s in words like recognize and organization. (There are, however, some words that are always written with -ise or -yse – read more about them here.)

American English uses the serial comma, which is the comma that is placed before and or or in a series of words. An example: Horses, cows, and sheep are farm animals. British English does not use this comma.

There are also differences in vocabulary. The American apartment is a flat in Britain, Brits walk on the pavement, while Americans use the sidewalk. And when you are angry in Britain, you are mad in America – to a Brit mad means crazy. When something is quite good it is very good in America but only fairly good in Britain.

There are, of course, also differences in grammar. When a British speaker uses the perfect tense, I have already called him, an American would use the past tense, I already called him. The American a real good movie is in British a really good film.

Oxford spelling is a variant of British English. It prefers -ize in words like organize and recognize instead of the spelling -ise in British English. The spelling with -ize is actually the oldest; organize, for example, appeared in a text in England as early as around 1425. The Oxford spelling is used by publishers like Collins, Longman and Oxford University Press (but not Oxford University!) and some academic journals in Britain. The Oxford spelling uses the serial comma, which therefore is also called the Oxford comma.

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