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I searched the whole internet but couldn't find anything else than the standard rules/guidelines as to how to use the simple present for future events. I understand that when something is scheduled, e.g. 'The train arrives at 10am,' the simple present is being used. I moved from Germany to California and since I'm here I hear people use the simple present all the time for non-scheduled events in the future or things they think are facts. I'll give you three example sentences I came across in conversations with native speakers:

We were in a furniture store and I sat on a fluffy white seat, the ones that look like huge pillows, and the person I was with said:

'Can you imagine how dirty it gets over time?'

...instead of:

'Can you imagine how dirty it will get over time?'

In another situation, I changed the headlight bulbs of my fiancee's car with her brother and since I'm not really familiar with cars I asked him why I should avoid touching the bulbs and he said:

'The grease from your fingers will burn into the bulb and then it breaks'

...instead of:

'The grease from your fingers will burn into the bulb and then it will break.'

Then, last evening my fiancee had a really bad stomachache and she said:

'I hope it goes away overnight'

...instead of:

'I hope it will go away overnight.'

Is there an exception to the rule here or is it just colloquialism? If so, could someone elaborate on this?


  • 2
    I think you'll like the idea of two-tense system in an answer I wrote some weeks ago: ell.stackexchange.com/a/100668/3281. Basically, it's easier to understand the usage if we divorce tense from time, and consider will a device to express modality rather than (the future) tense. – Damkerng T. Oct 2 '16 at 8:31
  • Are you sure your girlfriend's brother didn't say ".... will burn into the bulb and then break." ? In addition, you should realise, as a non native speaker, your ears will prick up whenever you hear a speaker say something that doesn't obey the "rules" you have internalised up to now. It's rare to speak to anyone whose speech is grammatically perfect 100%. There's always going to be some minor flaw, or defect. – Mari-Lou A Oct 2 '16 at 8:59
  • I think, in your first two sentences, they describe what is expected to happen as if it's a fact so they use simple present. About your last example with hope, it's actually quite common to use simple present after hope to mean future things. Maybe the reason is that what comes after hope is actually part of hoping which is happening right now. I just made that up :) BTW it's worth mentioning that most rules in English were created "after the fact," to describe what was already common usage so sometimes looking for reasons is a futile attempt. I got it as an English learner ;) – Yuri Oct 2 '16 at 9:10
  • @ Damkerng T. Thanks for posting the link! I'll go over it tomorrow. @Mari-Lou A No, he said it like that because to him it was a fact ( I think). – Chris Oct 3 '16 at 4:27
  • @Damkerng T. I read your post and I didn't have a problem understanding the OP"s sentence. I would have said the same 'Some of you will have met me before' if I was the author. That's something Germans say a lot in books as well. As to my problem, though, it didn't really help. I'd like to have a 'guideline' as to when to use the simple present the way I described it. I just don't want to fall into the habit of using the simple present for almost everything (which is what I did in German). – Chris Oct 3 '16 at 22:44
4

Addressing your specific questions:

'Can you imagine how dirty it gets over time?'

When people talk informally, they are often a little sloppy. The present tense would be the perfect choice to state a generalization or natural law such as:

'White gets dirty over time.'

This idea was close enough for the speaker. Someone who likes to be more precise might say, instead, "Can you imagine how dirty it would get over time [if we bought the white pillow]?" But you might not enjoy living with someone who uses English precisely all the time. Such people tend to be nitpicky.

'The grease from your fingers will burn into the bulb and then it breaks.'

Here, two ideas have been spliced together into one sentence.

First idea: "[If you touch the bulb with your fingers] the grease from your fingers will burn into the bulb."

Second idea: "When that happens, i.e. when you touch the bulb with your fingers, the bulb breaks."

This is another example of the simple present being used for a generalization or natural law. And again, in a situation of informal speech you caught the speaker being a little sloppy.

'I hope it goes away overnight.'

I don't know how the English grammar experts would view this (if you want to know, you could ask over at ELU SE), but I will share how I see this example. My other primary language is Spanish, which has a subjunctive. English has one too, but people don't think about it much. In Spanish you really can't get away without thinking about it. In Spanish, this would be

Espero que se quite para mañana. ("se quite" is conjugated in the subjunctive)

I see the English sentence the same way -- I see goes away as the present subjunctive, which happens to be conjugated the same as the simple present.

Your questions were good, and you've done some careful listening and recording of what you've heard.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out a small but important misuse of the simple present tense in your question:

You wrote: I moved from Germany to California and since I'm here I hear people use the simple present....

Expressions beginning with "since" are notoriously easy to get tripped up on.

Better: I moved from Germany to California and since I've been here I've heard people use the simple present....

Or: I'm from Germany. Here in California I hear people use the simple present....

  • I don't consider any of the examples cited by the OP to be "sloppy" they are informal, perhaps, but they're grammatical and appropriate in the situations they were used. – Mari-Lou A Oct 12 '16 at 4:49
  • Perfect answer and thanks for the correction! That was the German in me hehe. We use 'since' with the present simple and in English, when you use it the same way, it means 'because'. Thank you very much! – Chris Oct 13 '16 at 3:31
6

The present simple tense is used a great deal in vernacular English. You may not have used it much since it is your instructor's job to teach you all the other tenses that you will use only rarely in everyday English.

If you google the present simple tense, you will find plenty of tutorials explaining the usage, some better and some worse than others. This one seems to be good: Perfect English Grammar: When Should I Use The Present Simple Tense?

If the present simple is the simplest of the tenses, which I think it is, it makes sense to use it as much as possible. Writers use it as little as possible to make themselves look learned, and because English masters make children practice it for the good of their souls, and their pockets, if they ever aspire to become writers or teachers of English themselves.

I am finding it a refreshing challenge to stay in the present simple as much as I possibly can, even though I sense my old English master standing over my shoulder, saying to me "This is how you do it."

I cannot explain the grammatical rules to you. It needs a grammarian to do that. However, a grammar is only thousands of bits of common usage sorted into neat little piles. Grammarians are organisers of knowledge, not the great creators and givers of wisdom that they sometimes pretend to be.

The novelist Hilary Mantel uses the present simple a great deal in her masterpiece, Wolf Hall. I was very surprised when I came across it, even though I had been forewarned, and it took me some time to get used to the device, but now it seems natural enough. If you want something to read, it is a great book. Here is an extract:

He opens a letter. It is from a priest called Thomas Byrd. He is in want of money, and it seems the cardinal owes him some. He makes a note, to have it checked out and paid, then picks up the letter again. It mentions two men, two scholars, Clerke and Summer. He knows the names. They are two of the six college men, the Oxford men who had the Lutheran books. Lock them up and reason with them, the cardinal had said. He holds the letter and glances away from it. He knows something bad is coming; its shadow moves on the wall.

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

  • 4
    My apologies if this does not answer your question, but it was fun to write. – Mick Oct 2 '16 at 8:02
  • It's a nice piece of writing, I enjoyed reading it, but it didn't answer the OP's question, or even relate to any of the examples he posted. +1 for the link, though. – Mari-Lou A Oct 2 '16 at 8:51
  • It didn't answer my question, but it was a great comfort to read it because it means I can use the simple past for many situations without sounding unnatural. – Chris Oct 3 '16 at 4:24
  • You can. Simplest is often best. – Mick Oct 3 '16 at 4:35
  • @Mick Sharpe The main premise for me is to not sound unnatural. Meaning, if the simple present is used in most contexts I want to stick with it to sound more natural in conversational English, instead of following the textbook rules. – Chris Oct 3 '16 at 22:56
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+50

In an attempt to answer your bountied question:

I don't know if this sentence structure is unique to American English over British English, but as a native AmE speaker, it sounds natural to me. For lack of any academic term, I'll call it the "common anecdotal" voice. When speaking this way, it's like the speaker is telling you a story that progresses from one scene to the next, maintaining the present tense as I describe the scene: "First a happens, then B happens, then C, etc. " For example:

"I'm glad I'm not a farmer. The farmer gets up long before the sun rises, then he eats his breakfast while it's still dark, and heads out to do all the chores he needs to do with the animals: feeding, mucking out, grooming, whatever. As the sun rises he's out in the fields on his tractor, where he'll stay the whole day, maybe taking a break around noon to eat something. Sundown comes he'll head back to the house, eat some dinner, maybe watch a little television, and then before it's even fully dark he's in bed, where he'll sleep until he has to do the whole thing the next day."

In the same way if someone says, "Some of you met me before" it's as if I'm referring to that moment, that I'm about to tell an amusing story about the time we met. "Can you imagine how dirty it gets over time?" -- again, I'm painting a verbal picture of the situation, where we both visualize the thing getting dirtier and dirtier as time goes by.

I could use the future tense, and in some contexts that would be more appropriate. But the use of "will" distances the action from the present moment, and separates the listener from the immediacy of the verbal picture I'm creating. It also creates a slight nuance of potential instead of certainty. "The grease gets on the bulb and then it breaks" is certain. "The grease gets on the bulb and then it will break" is slightly uncertain.

Aside from professional orators and others who study speechcraft, I expect most don't do this consciously but instead can feel the difference between saying something happens and something will happen. It feels a little more immediate, and more personal, to use the present tense.

  • "The grease gets on the bulb and then it will break" is slightly uncertain. Okaay, that's interesting. I don't think I would have interpreted it that way. – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '16 at 16:53
  • @Mari-LouA with emphasis on slightly. – Andrew Oct 9 '16 at 17:11
  • I had a similar interpretation in my answer, though I am not a native speaker. However i noticed in Persian we often use present tense for future except for some of the cases @Damkerng pointed. Could you check it? – Ahmad Oct 9 '16 at 21:22
  • @Ahmad my explanation is based more on innate feeling and a touch of logic, so your explanation might be correct. Or it could be a combination of both. – Andrew Oct 9 '16 at 22:43
  • Could you please add your thoughts about the last sentence, "I hope it goes away overnight" why is the present tense used here? Thanks. – Mari-Lou A Oct 11 '16 at 11:12
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These types of sentences are quite common in different languages. When I translate them into Persian, I notice we also use the same tenses.

Simple present tense is often used to express an action in present time, habitual or usual actions, universal facts, routines, processes. Wikipedia article:

Use of the present tense does not always imply present time. In particular, the present tense is often used to refer to future events (I am seeing James tomorrow; My train leaves at 3 o'clock this afternoon). This is particularly the case in condition clauses and many other adverbial subordinate clauses: If you see him,...; As soon as they arrive... There is also the historical present, in which the present tense is used to narrate past events.

I feel in the examples above, when something is certain we tend to use present tense, like "My train leaves at 3 o'clock this afternoon".

On the other hand, will is used for prediction, willingness, insistence, intention and some other cases that @Dankerng.T pointed in this answer

Can you imagine how dirty it gets over time?

In this sentence the speaker says a general fact. He doesn't intend to refer to a specific time span, it could be any time span in the past or the future. However, if he wanted to say how dirty you will get by lying on it, he would say:

Can you imagine how dirty you will get by lying on it?

Because this time the time span is specific and begins from now. Also it's not a fact and only a prediction (probability).

The grease from your fingers will burn into the bulb and then it breaks

It also explains a process, though the first clause is a prediction or probability and takes will. Again the time is not as important as the process. This process can always happen, regardless of any time and always the stages are the same. The grease (probably) burns into the bulb and then it breaks., it is what happens. If the second clause was also a possibility that might happen in the future, he might say:

The grease from your fingers will burn into the bulb and then it will (probably) break.

It is a prediction and the speaker is not that certain.

I hope it goes away overnight.

It could again point to a routine! it means it should go away overnight, Maybe as it used to happen or as it usually happens or as it is expected to happen. If there was no precedent for the illness and its end would be only determined in the future she might say:

I hope it will go away overnight.

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With english not being my native language, I think that in the first two cases it refers to something that happens even now. The sofa gets dirty regardless if you buy it or not. The bulb breaks often if you touch it with your hands.

For the third, although i don't recall the grammar definition, I think, it's quite standard. I wish you were here (for present). I hope it goes away (for future). Actually I have a faint memory that it's wrong to say "it will go away" (maybe because it is a secondary sentence). This could also apply for your first example.

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