The progressive tense, which involves a 〜て form of a verb plus いる (ex: 食べている) is very convenient for English-speakers learning Japanese since it has similarities to the “-ing” form (ex: “I am eating”). This usage means something is actively ongoing.
This is all well and good, but the fact is that there is a side of 〜ている which is quite different from English usage, which is that this form can be used to express a certain state or condition. Let’s look at a sentence which can be interpreted in this way.
Your first instinct might be to try and translate this as “He is coming to the meeting”, but depending on the context a more proper translation would be:
- He is at the meeting.
The reason is that ~ている can be used here to indicate he is in the state of ‘being at the meeting’. Another way to look at it is when you have multiple verbs in a sentence, with one more verb in the 〜て tense, there can be a implied sense of ‘and’. Take this example:
- I went to the store and bought an onigiri (japanese rice ball).
If we look at our first sentence in the same light we can see that “he came to the meeting, and is here”, which amounts to the same meaning. He is not on the way, but rather has already arrived and is still present.
Alternatively, you can use the negative progressive form (~ていない) to indicate someone or something is not in a certain state.
- He is not yet arrived at the meeting.
If you wanted to express unambiguously that he wasn’t planning on coming, you could say something like “彼は打ち合わせに来ないそうです”. (“Apparently he is not coming to the meeting”)
As another example, if you watch enough Japanese crime dramas you’ve probably heard the following line:
Since the guy who is saying this phrase is inside the police questioning room, he surely doesn’t mean “I am not committing a crime now” (literally “I am not doing it now”). Instead he means:
- I didn’t do it. (= “I didn’t commit the crime”)
You can look at this as expressing his lack of being in the state of committing a crime.
Another example of 〜ている being used to express state is the phrase “濡れている” (nurete iru) which describes the state of being “wet”, rather than any active “-ing” type action.
There is an interesting story I’ve heard which involves taking advantage of the ambiguity of the ~ている that I’d like to end with.
In Japan if you go see a fortune teller and ask about a person (say Bill), you might be told the following phrase.
You might hear this and jump in surprise, because the fortune teller just told you a fact about Bill that he or she couldn’t have known. Whether Bill is dead or alive, the fortune teller managed to guess right. How could that be?
The trick here is that 死んでいません can mean either “not dead” (=”alive”) or “dead and no longer here”, depending on whether you interpreted ~ている as an ongoing “-ing” action, or as a state.
Pretty neat, huh?
(Note: there are some similarities to the 〜てある form which I covered here)