Curious minds often wonder about complex questions, scientific theories, and even grammatical constructs — and there’s no doubt that the latter can make you scratch your head in wonder, too. So, what’s the difference between phrases like “I wonder” and “I am wondering”?
The difference between “I wonder” and “I am wondering” comes down to tense. When you say “I wonder,” you are using the simple present tense, which indicates something is generally true, unchanging, or ongoing. “I am wondering” is present progressive, which means that something continuous occurs at the precise time you are speaking or in the future.
Often, you’ll see “I wonder” used in hypothetical situations and “I am” or “I was” wondering for situations that require a higher degree of politeness when asking a question or making a request.
Read on to learn more about these phrases and when and how to use them correctly in your writing.
Wonder or Wondering: What’s the Difference?
Whether you wonder how you’ll ever grasp the intricacies of English grammar, or you are wondering if you will finally pass that major exam that is right around the corner, both words, “wonder” versus “wondering,” communicate the same general meaning.
The difference comes down to understanding the various ways you can communicate an idea in the present tense. There are several different forms of the present tense in English, but the two we’ll learn about here are actually simpler than you might think.
Before we get into too much detail about how to use simple present versus present progressive, let’s first break down the difference in meaning between “wonder” versus “wondering.”
What Does “Wonder” Mean?
The word “wonder” simply means that you are asking yourself a question or expressing a desire to know or learn more about something (source). We most often use it as a verb, meaning it is an action word — something that you are physically doing or even a state of being (source).
You can actually be in a “state of wonder.” All that means is that while everyone around you may think you are simply looking up at the stars, for example, you are really gazing at them with admiration, curiosity, or questioning the mysteries of the universe.
But, in that case, you are using the term as a noun.
Using “Wonder” as a Verb or Noun
First, take a look at the two sentences below, each using the word “wonder” as a traditional verb.
1. I sometimes wonder if my husband will ever show up on time!
2. I wondered at the beauty of the night sky as we set up our camping gear.
Both uses of “wonder” above are verbs. Both illustrate the action of wondering, thinking, or questioning something, whether it is simple, such as a friend showing up on time, or more esoteric, like discovering the intricacies of the universe.
As we mentioned a moment ago, wonder can also be a noun. The meaning is not different at all, but rather than an action, wonder becomes a feeling experienced with admiration or the experience of something strange or new. Here’s an example:
3. I gazed in wonder at the magnificent replication of four past presidents of the United States on Mount Rushmore.
Above, wonder is a thing or idea or, more specifically, a feeling of awe or amazement.
Often, you’ll find the word “wonder” with an “-ing” attached at the end. It doesn’t change its meaning, necessarily, but it does change how you will use it and in what tense you are writing.
What Does “Wondering” Mean?
When you add an “-ing” to the word “wonder,” you are simply changing the tense of the verb from present simple to present continuous or progressive, which indicates that what you are wondering about is something that you are thinking in that moment, at that precise time.
It may mean that you are questioning or thinking about something that you do not know the answer to, or it could be something that you’ve not yet made a decision about. Let’s take a look:
1. I am wondering what I’ll have for dinner tonight.
2. I am wondering if my dog is going to get along with my sister’s cat.
In the first sentence, the speaker is in the midst of making a decision about dinner — it is something he or she is wondering at that moment.
The second sentence is quite similar but indicates that the speaker is wondering about something he or she is uncertain about at that time or perhaps in the future — whether the dog will get along with the cat.
Understanding “-ing” Verbs
The “-ing” form of a verb, as we mentioned earlier, changes the tense of the verb that you are using. In the case of “wonder,” adding the “-ing” communicates to your reader that you are writing in the progressive or continuous verb tense (source).
Don’t get confused by progressive versus continuous; you’ll find the terms used interchangeably, and they mean the same thing.
Present progressive/continuous simply shows a continuous action that is happening now. While that may sound a little bit confusing or contradictory, think of it this way — when you are wondering about something, you often do not have an answer immediately.
In other words, you are likely going to wonder about it for a while, whether a few hours in the case of deciding what you will eat for dinner or the foreseeable future if you are wondering about something more abstract or evasive, such as how the stars hang in the sky.
As a note, you can also add “-ing” to the word “wonder” to create a noun. This is probably the least common use of the word, but it is worth mentioning.
We call nouns like these “gerunds.” While we derive a gerund from a verb, they function as a noun since they are the subject of your clause/sentence. Here’s an example:
1. Wondering is what I often do when I get distracted in school.
Here, wondering is an idea, a noun — the verb (do) comes later in the sentence.
We’ll talk a bit more about tenses in the next section and break down more specifically the difference in usage between “I wonder” versus “I am wondering.”
“I Wonder” Versus “I Am Wondering”: Knowing Which Phrase to Choose
Again, there is no distinct difference in meaning between these two phrases. One is something that can be generally true — whether in the past, present, or future — or unchanging; the other can be ongoing but happens at a particular present moment.
Tenses can be a bit tricky, and we won’t cover too much about the many variations of tense in English grammar. Still, here, we’ll break down present simple and present progressive/continuous with example sentences so that you can see the difference between the two.
Understanding Simple Present Tense
When you write in the simple present tense, you are generally using the base form of a verb, which is why grammarians call it “simple.” It’s the easiest to form — the only time you’ll need to change the form of the verb is if you are writing in the third person point of view. In that case, you’ll simply need to add an “-s” at the end of the word.
In the case of “wonder,” your sentence would look like this:
1. I wonder if school will be canceled due to the snow.
2. He wonders if school will be canceled due to the snow.
The first sentence is in the first-person point of view (I), the second in the third (he). These sentences show a general truth. Verbs written in the simple present tense can also express habits, fixed or unchanging situations, emotions, and even wishes or desires (source).
Remember, the only thing simple present cannot communicate is something that is happening right now. For that, you’ll need that “-ing” ending; we’ll get into that next, but, first, take a look at a few more examples showing how you can use “I wonder” in a sentence.
Using “I Wonder” in a Sentence”
While using “I wonder” in a sentence is perfectly correct, you probably won’t see or use it as often as you will “I am wondering.” That’s because, in general, if you are wondering about something, you are thinking about it at that moment.
To communicate general wonder or an unchanging habit that reflects wonder, you might say something like the following:
1. I wonder when world peace will occur, if ever.
2. I wonder if the problems around climate change will get better.
3. She often wonders if her parents will stay together forever.
4. He wonders if college is the right decision for him.
In each of the examples above, wonder is something that each speaker/writer is expressing, not necessarily at that moment, but rather an ongoing question — one that is likely to remain unanswered for a period of time.
Understanding Present Progressive/Continuous Tense
Now that you have a good handle on simple present tense, it’s time to break down present progressive/continuous a bit more. Here is where you’ll use “I am wondering” in your writing.
The easiest way to double-check yourself and determine if you need to use present progressive/continuous is to ask yourself, “Is it something I’m wondering about right this very moment?” If your answer is yes, you’ll need to write “I am wondering.”
You can form the present progressive/continuous by combining a helping verb (to be) and your present participle, which is simply a verb ending in “-ing” (source).
So, when you write “I am wondering,” I (noun) is the subject of your sentence, am is the helping verb, and wondering is the present participle with your “-ing” ending.
Present progressive can also indicate something that will happen in the future, but, regardless, the actual wondering is still happening in the moment.
You may be wondering about what grade you received on a test, for example. You are wondering (thinking or questioning) at that moment about something you will find out in the future.
Using “I am Wondering” in a Sentence
As you add the word “wonder” to your vocabulary, you’ll more often use it in present progressive form versus present simple. Actually, even more often, you’ll use it in the past tense — we’ll get to that next.
Here are a few examples using “I am wondering” in a sentence:
1. I’m wondering if I should go visit my parents this weekend.
2. I’m wondering why I haven’t heard from my sister by now.
3. He is wondering whether or not he should cancel class today.
4. She’s wondering if she should break up with her boyfriend.
Again, in each of the examples above, the speaker/writer is wondering about something at that very moment. It is not a general truth, habit, or unchanging event; it’s something happening right now, as you are speaking or writing.
What About Past Tense?: When to use “I Was Wondering”
While we’ve broken down the difference between “I wonder” and “I am wondering,” one thing we have not mentioned is the phrase “I was wondering.” This, actually, is the most common way in which you will see the word “wondering” in writing and speaking.
Rather than present tense, the combination of “was” and “wondering” indicates past continuous tense since “was” is a past tense linking or helping verb. Past tense always communicates something that has already happened. In this case, the action of wondering has already occurred.
What makes “I was wondering” past continuous is the idea that it implies you started wondering about something in the past before you began speaking. Still, you continue to wonder about the subject.
Quite frequently, you’ll see this phrase used in situations where an added degree of politeness or formality is required, such as asking someone on a date, for example.
If you’d like to learn a bit more about past tense and how to use it correctly in your writing, take a look at “Past Due or Passed Due: Which Is Correct?”
Using “I Was Wondering” in a Sentence
There are many ways to say that you were wondering about something.
Below are a few example sentences. Remember that the phrase indicates something you were wondering about in the past and have since ceased (past simple) or something you began wondering about in the past but continue to do so in the present (past continuous).
1. I was wondering if you’d like to go to the movies with me tonight.
2. Yesterday, I was wondering if practice was canceled, but it was not.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
In the first sentence, “was wondering” indicates past continuous, and it also conveys politeness and formality. In the second, the speaker wondered about practice yesterday but no longer wonders about it today.
Whether you are writing in the past tense, present tense, or progressive/continuous, it can be a lot to wrap your mind around at first.
Just remember that the main difference between “I wonder,” “I am wondering,” and “I was wondering” comes down to whether something is happening in an ongoing or continuous way, right now, or in the past.