I am reading a plot summary of "Wuthering Heights", a story written by Emily Brontë.

One day Mr Earnshaw, father of Catherine and Hindley, goes to Liverpool on business. When he returns, he brings with him a child who has been living on the streets in the worst part of the city. From the moment that Mr Earnshaw takes the child as his son, giving him the name Heathcliff, nothing for the Earnshaw family or the Linton family is ever the same again.

So my confusion is about the verbs in bold. Why did she use the present simple form even she is telling something that had happened in the past?

I'm willing to add more context if needed.

  • 1
    @TeacherKSHuang Yup, it's not the original text. This is a simplified version published by Penguin Books 1999. The edition I'm reading published 2008. However, the story is a Level 5 story which is considered to be for Upper-intermediate readers (They are 6 levels from Beginner to Advanced). Also, could you provide some links where I can read about the argument you mentioned?
    – Ahmed99
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 11:55
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    You are reading a summary of the plot. It is conventional to use the present tense when reporting what happens in a work of fiction.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 12:19
  • 1
    I googled "narrative tense in novels" and I quite understand the thing now. I read "In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as he changes, and hence the story’s climax can be both more immediate and intense." "The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme." Thanks for your explanations.
    – Ahmed99
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 13:33
  • 1
    No one seems to have put a coin in the machine: kindly see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present This is called the historical present in English. [sign]
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 14:45
  • 4
    @lambie - It is; but that's a very misleading label, since it only occasionally arises in genres which can be described as 'historical'. A better term would be 'narrative present'. Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 14:49

4 Answers 4


There is a difference between telling a story and explaining what happens in a story. They are different. When we tell a story, we often use the past tense. We try to get our reader or listener involved in the story. We want them to forget where they are and that they are reading (or listening). We want them to enter the world of the story.

When we explain what happens in a story, we are usually summarising what happens. We aren't trying to get the reader or listener to forget where they are or to forget that they are reading. We are not trying to get them to enter the world of the story. We are just explaining what happens in the story. We use the present tense to provide these kinds of summaries.

You will notice that what happens in a particular story never changes. The story has a fixed plot, and every time you read the story everything happens in exactly the same order. So what we have is a fixed sequence, a bit like a procedure. It is normal when we run through a fixed sequence of events that never changes to use the present tense. This is similar to when we describe other procedures such as recipes, instructions, ceremonies and so forth.

The Original Poster's excerpt is a summary of the plot of the novel. The person who wrote the summary is not telling a story. They are just summarising what happens in the story. For this reason they have used the present tense instead of the past tense. They have not used the present tense because Wuthering Heights is a famous or classic novel!

  • 3
    mmm ... By convention, literary narrative mostly uses 'past' tense (if a past tense is available--but BH, for example, inflects for aspect not tense, and OT narratives are cast mostly in imperfective forms, with occasional perfects to 'foreground' narrative cruxes) ; but oral narrative, and literary narrative which emulates oral style, moves freely between past and present forms. Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 14:58
  • @StoneyB BH? <----- Agreed about other uses of the present in narratives - hence my judicious placement of often in we often use the past tense ;) But my brain isn't able to decode BH right now. Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 15:10
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    Sorry! Biblical Hebrew. Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 17:24
  • @StoneyB Ah, thanks :) That sounds very interesting ... Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 22:09
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    @Araucaria It's also controversial, so don't take my word for it! Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 22:13

It has been a literary convention for at least four hundred years that plot summaries are cast in the present tense. I imagine that the device is intended to exhibit the action of the work as it will unfold before the reader or spectator.

This convention obtains across genres: you will find it in accounts of plays, operas, novels, histories—even the liner notes to recordings. Here, for instance, is the 'Argument' Ben Jonson set before his play Volpone (1605), cast entirely in the present tense:

V olpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
O ffers his state to hopes of several heirs,
L ies languishing: his parasite receives
P resents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
O ther cross plots, which ope themselves, are told.
N ew tricks for safety are sought; they thrive: when bold,
E ach tempts the other again, and all are sold.


You are not reading "Wuthering Heights". You are reading a summary by someone else, retelling the tale. In chapter IV of "Wuthering Heights", the story of the adoption of Heathcliffe by Mr Earnshaw is told entirely in the past tense. Here is an excerpt:

"Not a soul knew to whom it belonged, he said; and his money and time being both limited, he thought it better to take it home with him at once, than run into vain expenses there: because he was determined he would not leave it as he found it. .... This was Heathcliff's first introduction to the family. On coming back a few days afterwards (for I did not consider my banishment perpetual) I found they had christened him 'Heathcliff': it was the name of a son who died in childbirth, and it has served him ever since, both for Christian and surname."

So be warned, make sure that what you are reading is the original, and not a retelling or a summary. Often the writer of a summary changes the tense to make the retelling more immediate, but you lose much, if not all, of the subtlety of the original!

  • goodreads.com/book/show/3140318-wuthering-heights This is exactly what I'm reading
    – Ahmed99
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 12:06
  • "Wuthering Heights" in the original is a difficult read for people whose first language is not English. It's a good thing to be able to read a simplified version, but if you can, once you have read the re-telling, try to look at at least a few passages from the original. It might take a bit of effort, but is well worth it. I, for example, read the whole of "Beowulf" in the original Old English, and found much more in this than in any translation. Not that I'm suggesting you tackle "Beowulf"!!
    – Warren Ham
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 12:31
  • A good retelling can be good literature in its own right. In the world of cinema, Akiro Kurosawa's classic 1954 movie 'The Seven Samurai' was retold as "The Magnificent Seven", the classic 1960 western. Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" became the brilliant 1956 scifi film "Forbidden Planet". And even in musc, the organ toccata from Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" has been reworked by Sky into "Toccata", a wonderful rock piece for guitar and percussion! So don't assume a retelling is necessarily second-rate -- but you should always try to dip into the original where you can.
    – Warren Ham
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 12:55
  • I'm trying to understand everything about what I'm reading so as you said it would be most difficult to "tackle" the original ones as I'm already struggling in some contexts here. But I should work to improve the quality of what I read and will give the original ones a try in the future as you suggested. Thank you!
    – Ahmed99
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 13:25


In English, using the present tense to recount past events is called the Historical Present (narrative present or dramatic present). It is very used in novels, short stories and by story tellers.

Funnily enough, it is not used in historiography though a historian recounting a specific episode in history might also use the present tense to describe a specific event when speaking.

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