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Richard Nordquist

No Time Like the Present Tense

By July 27, 2012

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A simple definition of the simple present tense is that it expresses an action in present time.

But when it comes to English verbs, few things are that simple. As it happens, the present tense can refer to actions that occur not only in the present but also in the past, in the future, and outside of time altogether.

Consider these five fairly common uses of the deceptively "simple" present.

  • Historical Present
    Used in the narration or reenactment of past events to create the effect of an immediate, eye-witness account. In practice, the present tense is rarely used by conventional historians, but a version of it--sometimes called the conversational historical present--often shows up in travelogues, sportscasting, and joke-telling: "A duck walks into a bar . . .."

  • Literary Present
    Used in analyses of poems, plays, stories, and novels (regardless of when they were written) to indicate the apparent timelessness of literary works: "Chaucer emphasizes the knight's military skill . . ."; "Macbeth repeats his request for armor . . .."

  • Gnomic Present
    Used to express a fact, belief, or general truth without reference to time: "The earth moves around the sun." The gnomic present is favored by the Bible ("Every good tree bears good fruit") and by contemporary social scientists ("Organizations seek to place their boundaries . . ."). "The advantage of the gnomic present," says economist and rhetorician Deirdre McCloskey, "is its claim to the authority of General Truth, which is another of its names in grammar."

  • Habitual Present
    Used to indicate an action that occurs regularly or repeatedly: "Every day the children leave for school in the dark." There's a timeless quality to the habitual present: the activity has occurred in the past and will continue to occur in the future.

  • Future
    The simple present tense may be used to indicate a future course of action: "Dave returns on Monday." (The present progressive--a present form of "to be" plus a present participle--may also refer to future events: "The principal is retiring next year.")

To learn more about the peculiar habits of English verbs, see the following:


July 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm
(1) HillRunner says:

Disagreeing with experts is always presumptuous. But I’d like to suggest that the literary present did not evolve to, and isn’t really used to, bestow timelessness on literary works. Kids use it intuitively when they “tell movies.”

I’d offer that the literary present is used to create the impression in the reader’s mind that the play, novel or film is playing out at this moment right in front of them.

This artifice delivers an immediacy and creates an involvement that any other tense would dilute.

Thanks for considering!

August 16, 2012 at 9:21 pm
(2) WordLover says:

HillRunner, I agree. Thank you for the insight.

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