Even if grammatically there’s only a small difference in aspect, in terms of meaning, there’s an entire world of difference between:
Are you drinking?
Do you drink?
As I’ve pondered on before, we actually don’t really use the verbs to eat or to drink very often, or at least not as often as how we each teach them would lead a learner to expect. To have tends to cover any situation where we could use either. But I was just thinking today how particularly loaded the word (to) drink can be, with its meaning changing a lot depending on the context or the tense we use. Have a look at these examples:
Have you had a drink yet?
How many drinks have you had!?
Have you been drinking?
Would you like something to drink?
I’d like a drink.
I like a drink.
I like to drink.
Do you want a drink?
Do you want to go for a drink?
He has a drink.
He has a drink with breakfast.
“Where’s John, he’s late!” “He’s drinking…”
Don’t make him laugh, he’s drinking!
I wonder if it says a lot about our relationship with alcohol, that the word drink is so often synonymous with alcohol, or with having alcohol. I mean, no native speaker would ever think that asking Do you drink? could ever mean Do you have coffee or orange juice in the morning, or an occasional glass of water during the day?
I suppose replacing alcohol with drink is a way for people to make their alcohol intake seem more acceptable. It’d be interesting to replace the word drink with alcohol in a lot of common phrases:
Shall we go for some alcohol?
Fancy a quick bit of alcohol after work?
I’d love some alcohol.
It’d certainly make drinking alcohol less socially acceptable. Not that I’ve anything against it. There are few things more pleasant than a cold beer after a long day’s work, or having a couple of pints with good friends. But it’d be interesting to see how attitudes to drinking might change if we had to be more open about it. Lucky then, that the English language gives us the ability to be as subtle as we want to be when we don’t want to be too direct about something. I’ll drink to that.