The English present tense – there’s nothing simple about it

By Michelle Brooke

As an English-as-Second-Language teacher, I notice there are certain aspects of English that cause more difficulties for my students than others. One is the way we use present tense.

In many languages, present tense is constructed by conjugating a single verb. For example, in French we say, “je mange” and in German, “ich esse,” but in English we say, “I am eating.” Notice that in English, we need two verbs: “am” and “eating.” The first verb is called the auxiliary verb. The verb that follows the auxiliary must have “ing” on the end. This is how we express actions that we are currently doing.

If we conjugate our verbs in what is called “simple present” tense, we are not actually talking about the present at all. We are talking about a habitual action. For example, if someone asks me, “What are you doing right now?” and I answer with the simple present, “I walk to the store,” this sounds ungrammatical. But if someone asks me, “What do you do every Tuesday?” and I answer, “I walk to the store,” this makes perfect sense. “I walk to the store” does not mean the same thing as “I am walking to the store.” The first sentence means it is something I do repetitively; the second sentence means it is something I am currently doing. The phrase “she reads books” in English does not mean that she is currently reading books; rather, it means she often reads books, that she has a hobby of reading. What is called “simple present” (for example “reads”) is not actually “present” at all, but an action that is repeated.

My students often struggle with this. The more I teach ESL, the more peculiarities I find in the English language. Every language has so many details and so many oddities that being able to learn a new language is really quite astounding.

Michelle Brooke is a Carleton University student majoring in linguistics and French and minoring in German. She loves learning and writing about language. She has been writing about the idiosyncracies of language for the Glebe Report for several years, but will step away from this role to devote more time to career and studies. We have very much enjoyed her articles about language and wish her all the best in the future.

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