Tag Archives: narrative present

The perfect present


We often beat ourselves up about living too much in the past or the future and not “living in the moment”. But it’s interesting to see that we speak and write in the present tense more than we probably realize …

In my work as a publicist, I’m often talking and writing about things that will happen in the future: a work that is going to be performed or premiered, a CD scheduled to be released, an award to be bestowed. But nowadays — in this age of low attention spans and instant gratification — everything has to sound imminent or immediate in order for it to receive attention or make any impact. So we talk in the present tense — even about the future: “She sings next month”; “he releases the CD in October”; “he opens the Met’s season in 2015”. A press release written strictly and entirely in the future tense, using a lot of wills, would be tiresome indeed: as well as being more removed in time, it is necessarily more wordy and repetitive. Snappy it certainly isn’t.

As well as its sense of immediacy, the present tense has the advantage of linguistic expediency. English speakers don’t have the choice of simple future conjugations the way the French and others do (“j’irai demain”); officially we’re meant to employ extra words (in this case modal verbs) in addition to the main verb to indicate the future: “he will sing”, “the label is going to release a CD”. Our conjugated present tense is much shorter: “he sings”; “the label releases”. But thankfully for us marketeers, and confusingly for anyone trying to learn English as a foreign language, we actually do use the present tense — in common standard and not just colloquial English — to talk about the future, especially if we’re discussing something that is happening [there it is again — ed.] fairly reliably or imminently: “I’m having dinner with him tomorrow”, “he’s giving a speech next week”, or “the bus leaves at 3 in the morning”. Try explaining that rule to a non-English speaker …. Continue reading