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Late writers, present tenses.

4 years ago

Lately I’ve been unable to read anything without thinking about grammatical structures. It is, I suppose, a language teacher’s affliction. I thought I might compile a few examples for learners. Context is what matters when using a piece of language. Why not enjoy some examples from a few of the English language's great masters?

Today I'll pick only the present tense in various aspects.

Present Simple
Form: S + V

The present simple is used for facts, habitual activities, and, when used with the verb 'to be', states. Let’s look at how the eponymous narrator uses the present simple in the opening pages of Beckett’s Molloy:

  • I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got here. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not. He gives me money and takes away the pages.”
Samuel Beckett, Molloy

Notice how in a short space of time, Molloy uses the present tense to give us a state (that he is in his mother’s room) a fact (that he doesn’t know how he got there) and habitual activities (a man gives him money every week). That Beckett was economical!

Tennyson’s Ulysses also uses the present simple to discuss the daily habits of his son, Telemachus.

He works his work, I mine”
Tennyson, "Ulysses"

Present Progressive/Continuous
Form: S+ Am/is/are+-ing

A common use of the present progressive is to talk about temporary situations happening “around now”. Let’s look at how Moran, the non-eponymous narrator of Molloy, begins his monologue:

“I am in my room. It is raining.”

Presumably, it’s not going to rain forever.

Present Perfect
Form: S+have/has+past participle

We use the present perfect for finished events that connect with the present.

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons”
--TS Eliot. “The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Poor Prufrock. He is tired. While he first “knew” all the types of days sometime in the past, he still carries this knowledge wearily into the present.

The endless routine is then powerfully reinforced with a second use of the present perfect to say his life is mensurable to the amount of coffee he has prepared.

Present Perfect Progressive
Form: S+have/has+-ing

A combination of the perfect and continuous aspects, we use the present perfect progressive for facts that started in the past and are still going on. In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family make a long and ill-fated journey to bring their mother’s body to the town of Jefferson. As they caravan, buzzards pursue their ragged wagon. The body is nearly lost to a river; the body is nearly lost to a fire. It is an eventful trip.

As the family approaches Jefferson, they begin to see signs of civilization. Finally! Yet, they keep passing and passing signs. Let’s look at Brother Darl’s use of the present perfect progressive here and how it really functions to emphasize that they have been on the road for a long temporal duration. The event of "Passing a sign" has occurred and continues to occur.

  • "We have been passing the signs for some time now: the drugstores, the clothing stores, the patent medicine and the garages and cafes, and the mile-boards diminishing, becoming more starkly recurrent: 3 mi. 2 mi. From the crest of a hill, as we get into the wagon again, we can see the smoke low and flat, seemingly unmoving in the unwinded afternoon. " "Is that it, Darl?" Vardaman says. "Is that Jefferson?"
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
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