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The Meanings and Uses of the Present Tenses

The simple present tense is used to talk about facts or things that are generally true.

  • Mr. Jones owns a chemist’s shop.
  • Cows and horses eat grass.
  • John works in a bank.
  • Two and two is four.
  • Pandas live in China.
  • Mary plays the piano.
  • This car runs on diesel oil, not petrol.
  • That sign says ’Private property.
  • The Smiths don’t live here any more.
  • Nancy likes avocados but George doesn’t. He hates them.

The simple present tense is also used to talk about repeated actions.

  • Mary practises on the piano for an hour every evening.
  • Bob plays football on Saturdays.
  • We always go to Penang for our holidays.
  • Swallows nest under our roof every year.
  • Buses leave here every ten minutes.
  • get up at seven o’clock every morning and have a shower before breakfast.

The present continuous tense is used to talk about something that is happening at or round about the time of speaking or about situations that will only last for a limited period of time.

  • Mary plays the piano. (= a general fact; Mary knows how to play the piano, or she often plays the piano)
  • Mary is playing the piano. (= a description of what is happening now)
  • Richard tells lies. (= a general fact; that is the sort of thing Richard does)
  • Richard is lying to you. (= that is what Richard is doing now)
  • It never rains in the desert. (= a general fact)
  • It’s raining at the moment, but I’m sure it will be sunny later on. (= a temporary situation)
  • James lives with his mother. (= a permanent situation; that is where James’s home is)
  • James is living with his mother until his new flat is ready for him to move into. (= a temporary situation)
  • Emma is a very stubborn girl. (= a permanent state)
  • Emma is just being stubborn, but she’ll give in eventually. (= a temporary state)
  • We spend a lot of time on our boat on Loch Lomond. (= a general fact)
  • We‘re spending a lot of time on our boat these days. (= something that is happening at present)
  • Children very quickly learn to copy their parents. (= a general fact)
  • I‘m learning French at school. (= something that is happening at present)

It is important to note the difference in meaning when the two present tenses are used with the adverb always.

The simple present tense with always denotes something that happens every time:

  • She always washes her hair on Friday evenings. (= she washes her hair every Friday evening)

The present continuous tense is used with always to refer to something that happens very often, but not necessarily every time, and generally suggests that the speaker is annoyed about it or thinks it is unnecessary or unreasonable:

  • She’s always washing her hair. (= she washes her hair very frequently, and it annoys or surprises me)

In this second sense, you can use forever or continually instead of always:

  • You‘re forever asking me for money.
  • He’s continually questioning what I tell him to do

The present continuous tense with always and forever often also implies that the action described is accidental rather than deliberate;

  • I’m forever leaving my umbrella on the bus.
  • The dog is always knocking over that chair

In certain special cases, the simple present tense is used rather than the present continuous tense to describe actions that are happening at the time.

When a series of actions is being described at the time that they happen, as, for example, in a football commentary, the simple present tense is used:

  • Campbell passes to Beckham, Beckham runs with the ball and passes it to Cole, who dribbles past three defenders and shoots, but the keeper punches the ball over the net.

The simple present tense is used in captions for photographs, instructions to actors in plays, etc:

  • Tony Blair addresses a meeting of the Trades Union Congress.
  • Mr. Smith turns to face Madeleine while Mrs. Smith exits stage right.

In formal English, the simple present tense may also be used, for example, in business letters, when you are describing what you are doing or thinking:

  • enclose a cheque for $25.
  • look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
  • We note your concerns about the delay.

The simple present tense is used with performative verbs. Performative verbs are verbs that describe actions that are actually performed by using the verb itself in a sentence. (For example, when you say ‘I promise to come’, you are actually promising to come: by saying ‘I promise’, you are making a promise. Promise is a performative verb.)

  • I promise I will be there.
  • swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
  • apologize for the delay.
  • We thank you for your recent letter.
  • confess I had forgotten all about our arrangement to meet up with them.

Some verbs are not normally used in the continuous form.

Verbs describing mental activity, appreciate, believe, doubt, expect, feel (= think), forget, guess, imagine, intend, know, mean, perceive, realize, recall, recognize, recollect, regard, remember, see (= understand), suppose, think (= be of the opinion), trust, understand:

  • know what you mean.
  • think we’re lost.
  • feel that would be a foolish thing to do.
  • believe her.
  • don’t understand what you are saying.

Note that when think means to be ‘trying to form thoughts’ rather than ‘having an opinion’, it can be used in the continuous tense:

  • ‘What’ll we do now?’ ‘Be quiet a minute. I’m thinking.’

Verbs that express feelings and emotions or effects: abhor, adore, appreciate, astonish, care, desire, detest, dislike, fear, forgive, hate, impress, like, loathe, love, mind, prefer, satisfy, value, want, wish:

  • like cheese but I prefer ice-cream.
  • They hate being late.
  • value your opinions.

Verbs that describe something that affects the senses: hear, see, smell, taste:

  • hear music.
  • That soup smells good.

Note that when any of these verbs describes an action, it can be used in a continuous tense:

  • I am Just smelling the flowers; I won’t damage them.

Various other verbs, including many that describe states or relationships between things, etc: appear, apply to, belong to, concern, consist of, contain, cost, depend on, deserve, equal, fit, have, hold, include, involve, keep, lack, matter, need, owe, own, possess, presuppose, remain (= stay in the state of), require, resemble, seem, signify, sound, weigh:

  • The same rules apply to everyone.
  • Those boots belong to me.
  • Two and two equals four.
  • That dress fits you perfectly.
  • This Jar holds two litres of liquid.
  • That seems OK.
  • The parcel weighs five kilos.

Note that many of these verbs can be used In the continuous form when they describe actions rather than states:

  • I’m having a bath at the moment.
  • The man is weighing the parcel to see how heavy it is.
  • What is he holding in his hand?

Both the simple present tense and the present continuous tense can be used to refer to future events or actions.

The simple present tense is used to refer to events that are part of a fixed or agreed schedule, for example, in timetables and programmes:

  • The train leaves in ten minutes.
  • The concert begins at 7.30.
  • We arrive in Singapore at half past four.

The present continuous tense is used to refer to events that are part of what someone plans to do:

  • I’m washing my hair tonight.
  • Mary is playing the piano at the dance next Saturday.
  • We’re going to Holland for a reunion next month.
  • ‘Are you doing anything tomorrow?’
  • ‘Yes, I’m meeting a friend for lunch.’

The simple present tense is used to refer to future actions in adverbial clauses of time and in conditional clauses:

  • I’ll tell him when I see him. (NOT when I will see him’)
  • We’ll give you a call when we get back from our trip.
  • We’ll phone you as soon as we arrive.
  • If you put your fingers through the bars of the parrot’s cage, it will bite them.
  • If the rain stops, we might go to the park later on.

If the future activity is continuous rather than a single action, then the present continuous tense may be used:

  • When we arrive we’ll go straight to our hotel. Then while you unpack (OR while you are unpacking), I’ll go and hire a car.

In informal English, the present tenses can be used instead of past tenses to refer to the past when you are telling a story or describing something that has happened. The simple present tense describes past events and actions and the present continuous tense describes what was happening before (and often after) these events or actions.

  • What do you think happened to me today? I’т standing on the path beside the river, watching the ducks, when someone taps me on the shoulder. I look round and there’s my old school-friend Martin. I haven’t seen him for years. We start to chat, and Io and behold, a few minutes later, while we are talking, along comes another old friend of ours. So the three of us decide to go for a cup of coffee. When we go into the cafe, who do we see but yet another fellow who was at school with us. Talk about coincidence!

In very informal English, when the verb say is used in the simple present tense to refer to the past, it may have an -s ending even with a first person pronoun subject:

  • ‘So,’ says I to myself, ‘that’s their little game, is it?’

Active and Passive

The description of the tenses in this topic has concentrated on the tenses in the active voice. The passive present-tense equivalents of the active verbs are as follows:

Simple Present Tense:

  • Active — enclose a cheque for $25.
  • Passive — A cheque for $25 is enclosed.

Present Continuous Tense:

  • Active — Soldiers are guarding the airports.
  • Passive — The airports are being guarded by soldiers.

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