(See also Present Simple: Form)
The Present Simple (simple because it is the basic tense form, without any of the additional nuances of the perfect or progressive aspects) is the basic non-past form of the verb. The name of this tense is not helpful for learners, because it can refer to:
- Past time: Jane tells me you've not been too well since you got back.
- Present time: And Gray takes the ball upfield again and passes to McNally on the edge of the box.
- "General" time: Babies normally lose weight in the first few days.
- Future time: The UN General Assembly opens in New York late this month.
Many grammars list many ways in in which this tense is used; some of the more common appear below. Students may find it less confusing to consider this tense as an unmarked or timeless tense. This is discussed later in the article.
Uses of the present simple – traditional list
1. Eternal, habitual, permanent, general, etc., truths: Water freezes at O⁰ Celsius.
2. Regular or repeated actions: I normally drive to work.
3. Present states: That car belongs to George.
4. Instructions, directions, demonstrations, etc: I engage first gear and gently let the clutch up.
5. Commentary on fast action: Matthews heads the ball to Charlton; he stops it, turns, feints and....
6. Vivid, dramatic or historic present: Then this chap just walks up to me and punches me.
7. Timetabled future: Luke leaves for Moscow next Wednesday.
8. Future time and conditional clauses: If you drive me to the station, I'll be able to catch the 8.15.
9. Present speech acts, where the verb is the act: I declare this fête open.
Problems with the traditional list
It is true that the uses of the present simple can be described in ways as those noted above, but such descriptions present three major problems for the learner.
• The learner is confronted with nine (or more) uses of this form, and probably of all other forms, giving the impression of an apparently arbitrary system.
• There is no obvious connection between some of the uses.
• They do not help the learner understand why, under certain circumstances, other forms may be chosen by native speakers instead of the present simple, for example:
1a. Water will freeze at O⁰ Celsius...
4a. I am engaging first gear and letting the clutch up.
6a. Then this chap just walked up to me and punched me.
7a. Luke is leaving for Moscow next Wednesday.
7b. Luke is going to leave for Moscow next Wednesday.
7c. Luke will leave for Moscow next Wednesday.
7d. Luke will be leaving for Moscow next Wednesday.
8a. If you'll drive me to the station, I'll be able to catch the 8.15.
It is no wonder that for many students, the English tense system appears extremely complex.
The Unmarked Tense
In fact, there is an underlining simplicity to the system. The only 'rule' for the unmarked tense, traditionally known as the present simple, is:
We always use the unmarked tense unless we wish to draw attention to some other aspect of the action/event/process/state.
At first sight this may appear to be evading the problem, but it is not. Instead of thinking of one of the nine or more reasons why students should use the unmarked tense, they simply use it unless they have a positive wish to express some other ideas.
The point can be made clearer by considering two examples:
10. I work in Berlin.
11. I want to work in Berlin.
The difference between these two is clear: in , the speaker simply presents the fact of his/her working in a particular place. In , the working is not a fact; something else is important – the speaker's wanting, and the speaker has chosen to make this explicit.
Now consider the following examples:
12. I work in Berlin.
13. I worked in Berlin
14. I am working in Berlin.
15. I have worked in Berlin.
Only in  is the speaker's working in Berlin presented as a ‘fact’, with no reference to the time, duration, completion or anything else. In ,  and , something else is important, and the speaker has chosen to make this explicit.
Far from being a present tense in English, this form is in fact timeless; it is not marked for time or anything else. This is why it is referred to in this section as unmarked. Consider again utterances  -  at the beginning of this section. As with , the time (past, present, future, general) of the situations is clear from the context; no importance at all is placed on the duration, completion, on-goingness or anything else of the situations; they are presented simply as facts. There is no reason for the speaker to use any other tense/aspect, any more than there is any reason to mention obligation, desire, ability, etc. The unmarked tense is effectively the default tense/aspect.