The Present Tense of Verbs

Describing What's Happening Here and Now

present tense
The present tense can refer to an action or event that's happening now. But in some contexts (such as photo captions, stage directions, instructions in manuals, etc.), the present tense can be used without referring to present time. (lvcandy/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a present tense is a form of the verb occurring in the current moment that is represented by either the base form or the "-s" inflection of the third-person singular, contrasting with the past and future tenses.

The present tense may also refer to an action or event that is ongoing or that takes place at the present moment. However, because the present tense in English can also be used to express a range of other meanings — including references to the past and future events, depending on the context — it is sometimes described as being "unmarked for time." 

The basic form of the present indicative is commonly known as the simple present. Other verbal constructions referred to as "present" include the present progressive as in "are laughing," the present perfect as in "have laughed" and the present perfect progressive as in "have been laughing." 

Functions of the Present Tense

There are six common ways to use the present tense in English, though the most common function is to designate an action that is occurring at the time of speaking or writing like "she lives in the house" or to indicate habitual actions like "I run every morning," and in some cases may be used to express general truths like "time flies," scientific knowledge like "light travels," and when referring to texts like "Shakespeare says a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet."

Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II note in the third edition of "The Scribner Handbook for Writers" that present tense also has some special rules for their usage, especially when indicating future time wherein they must be used with time expressions like "we travel to Italy next week" and "Michael returns in the morning."

Many authors and literary scholars have also noticed a recent trend in literary works to be written in the "hipper" present tense, whereas most works of great literature are written in the past tense. This is because modern literature relies on the use of the present tense to convey a sense of urgency and relevance to the text.

The 4 Present Tenses

There are four unique forms of the present tense that can be used in English grammar: simple present, present progressive, present perfect and present perfect progressive. The simple present is the most common form, used primarily to express facts and habits, detail the action of scheduled future events and to tell stories in a more compelling and engaging manner than past tense entails.

In the present progressive sentences, a linking verb is often attached to the present progressive verb to indicate events that are ongoing in the present, such as "I am searching" or "he is going" while the present perfect tense is used to define actions that began in the past but are still ongoing like "I have gone" or "he has searched."

Finally, the present perfect progressive form is used to indicate a continuous activity that started in the past and is still ongoing or has recently been completed as in "I have been searching" or "he has been depending on you."