present tense (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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)

Definition

In English grammar, the present tense is a form of the verb that is represented by either the base form (for example, "I/You/We/They laugh") or the -s inflection of the third-person singular ("He/She/It laughs"). Also called the non-past. Contrast with the past tense or preterite.

The present tense may 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 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 (am/is/are laughing), the present perfect (has/have laughed), and the present perfect progressive (has been/have been laughing).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

  • "He cuts down trees.
    He skips and jumps."
    (Monty Python, "The Lumberjack Song." And Now for Something Completely Different, 1971)
     
  • "She crunches and munches and
    dribbles her crumbs.
    She slurps from her juice box;
    She whistles and hums."
    (Tamera Will Wissinger, "Lucy's Quiet Time." Gone Fishing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)
     
  • "A twelve-year-old boy comes forward. He is small, dark, muscular, concentrated. He tucks the violin under his chin, rises on his toes, closes his eyes, dilates his nostrils, and begins to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E."
    (Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back. Viking, 1976)
     
  • "Animals—lions and zebras and beautiful snakes—live vividly in the present tense, in a bright unconsciousness of time. That is their innocence and their limitation. Humans carry with them their experiences, their pasts; men and women work with a knowledge of consequences and, doing so, impose order on the chaotic present and project consequences into the future."
    (Lance Morrow, "The Trouble With The Present Tense." Time magazine, March 30, 1998)
     
  • "On the beach we dip freshly dug clams from their shells. We play catch or sail a dinghy or holler; we have sand in our hair, calluses on our feet, hot brown skin on our arms. This is the life of the senses, the life of pleasures. It is mirage on the half shell. It vanishes like any fun, and the empty winds resume.
    (Annie Dillard, "Mirages." Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1982)
     
  • "I loop a bale string onto the calf's exposed foot, knot the string short around a stick which my son then holds. I press my hand gently into the birth canal until I find the second foot and then, a little further on, a nose. I loop a string around the second foot, fasten on another stick for a handhold. And then we pull."
    (Wendell Berry, "A Few Words for Motherhood," 1982)
     
  • "The buses rumble like green juggernauts through the snow that sifts down in the dusk. White house walls rise through the dusky snow. Snow is never more beautiful than in the city. It is wonderful in Paris to stand on a bridge across the Seine looking up through the softly curtaining snow past the grey bulk of the Louvre, up the river spanned by many bridges and bordered by the grey houses of old Paris to where Notre Dame squats in the dusk."
    (Ernest Hemingway, The Toronto Star, 1923; rpt. in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, ed. by William White. Scribner's, 1967)
     
  • Functions of the Present Tense
    "The present tense designates action occurring at the time of speaking or writing: She lives in Toronto. It is used to indicate habitual actions: I exercise every morning. It is also used to express general truths (Time flies) and scientific knowledge (Light travels faster than sound). . . .

    "Present tense also has some special uses:

    - to indicate future time when used with time expressions:
    We travel to Italy next week.
    Michael returns in the morning.

    - to describe works of literature and the arts:
    Hamlet avoids avenging his father's death for one reason."
    (Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II, The Scribner Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed., Allyn and Bacon, 2002)
     
  • Effects of the Present Tense
    - "I discovered as I began to write how delicious the present tense is . . .. Action takes on a wholly different, flickering quality; thought and feeling and event are brought much closer together. And so the present tense proved to be a happy one and I wrote on and on."
    (John Updike, The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 5, 1990)


    "Rabbit takes off his coat, folds it nicely, and rests it on a clean ashcan lid. Behind him the dungarees begin to scuffle again. He goes into the scrimmaging thick of them for the ball, flips it from two weak grubby-knuckled child's hands, has it in his own. That old stretched-leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives his arms wings. It feels like he's reaching down through years to touch this tautness. His arms lift of their own and the rubber ball floats toward the basket from the top of his head. It feels so right he blinks when the ball drops short, and for a second wonders if it went through the hoop without riffling the net. He asks, 'Hey whose side am I on?'"
    (John Updike, Rabbit, Run. Alfred A. Knopf. 1960)


    - "Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher claimed that the use of present tense [in novels] is becoming a cliché. . . .

    "The six authors listed for this year's [Man Booker Prize] are Peter Carey, Andrea Levy, Howard Jacobson, Tom McCarthy, Damon Galgut and Emma Donoghue. The first three authors' novels are in the past tense while the others written in the more 'fashionable' style.

    "Hensher, whose novel The Northern Clemency was Booker shortlisted in 2008, said that writers were mistaken by thinking that using the present tense would make their writing more vivid. He said: 'Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift in tense won't do that for you.'"
    (Laura Roberts, "Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher Criticise Booker Prize for Including Present Tense Novels." The Daily Telegraph, Sep. 11, 2010)