The Big English Present

the very big English present tense

The Present in English grammar is very, very big!

The grammatical term of the present in English is a bit of trap. Yes, it is tense, but when combined with the four basic aspects of simple, progressive (or continuous), perfect and perfect progressive the concept of the present being the now type present goes out the window.

The confusion starts with the present simple. It is big. Really big. So big in fact that it swallows up the past and future and sticks them together.

For example. I am a man. Could I have been a woman last year? Or will I change into a woman in five years? No, it says I was a man, am a man, and will continue to be a man. Past, present and future.

To move aspects. I am reading a book. So, what right at this very moment? No. Perhaps I started reading the book three weeks ago, and still have ten chapters left to read. Perhaps I only read one chapter of an evening before going to bed. Again, past, present and future.

Or, I am having my tooth extracted. When. Today, tomorrow, next week. We don’t know, but it is definitely in the future.

To the perfect present. I have painted the kitchen. When exactly? Am I painting now? No, I finished some time ago. So here we have the present talking about the past. That’s logical isn’t it? The economy has collapsed. When? Now, or in the past?

I have been painting the kitchen. Add the progressive to the perfect and what do we have now? Past action again, but now there is a hint that I may not have completed it yet. Now there is a subtle difference to ponder.

So there we have it. The grammatical present in English. Quite a simple concept really. It is everything, every time and quite illogically huge.

To understand why the English present is different from many other languages, one needs to look at how English uses time in its tenses. Yes, as in most languages English has the three standard grammatical time periods of past, present and future. Where English differs, is that it needs another time period, and that is the time concept of now.

Now is infinitely small. It is gone before you know it has been. It is the very fine line of time that separates the past from the future. The present sits on top of this structure, and with a change of aspect, moves to the appropriate point in time.

Hence, the present in English is not just the present at all. It can be the past, the present or the future. Or, a combination. Simple really.

1 thought on “The Big English Present”

  1. This is simply wonderful (as all your posts are, by the way). It really reminds me why I don't confuse my grammar students by making them attempt to understand such concepts. So long as they can write well, they don't have to understand how it works!

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