Below is a question from a book.

  1. Joe goes out. Five minutes later, the phone rings and the caller says, "Can I speak to Joe?" You say: _____________________________ (go out).

My question is. Why are the sentences written with simple present? Shouldn't it be:

Joe went out. Five minutes later, the phone rang and the caller said, "Can I speak to Joe". You said: ___________.

Is the question trying tell me about events that happened in the past?
Is the question trying to tell me about events that are hypothetical?

My understanding is that you use simple present for things that are present or generally true.

If the question is about a hypothetical situation then shouldn't it be like this:

If Joe goes out, five minutes later, the phone rings then the callers says, 'Can I speak to Joe?' You say: ______ .

You need "if" for hypothetical, right?

edit: I know what the answer is. The answer is He has just gone out . I'm not trying to figure out what the answer to the fill in the bank question. I'm trying to understand why the question was asked that way. As far as I know, hypothetical situations start with if . I'm trying to understand why that made-up question did not use if.

  • Maybe, the author wants to see if readers can fill in a correct answer, probably a correct sequence of tense. I think that the answer is, Joe has gone out. Mar 1, 2017 at 8:24
  • I'm trying to figure out why the question was written that way. I am not trying to answer the fill in the blank question. Dont hypothetical situations start with "if"? Why was present tense used?
    – bluejimmy
    Mar 1, 2017 at 22:23

1 Answer 1


I think it's a use of the historical present. We sometimes use the present tense when telling stories or giving directions to give it a more immediate "you are there right now" feel.

Setting the entire story in the simple past would make it feel very strange, like a retelling of actual events rather than instructions. Yes, if it's a hypothetical we usually use if, but again, in descriptions of things we often use the present tense to describe events as if they were happening right now.

  • To make this clear, can I tell a story in the past in present tense? For instance, I went to watch a game last week and saw a cool car. Can I tell my friend that "I go to watch a game and I see a cool Lamborghini car in the parking lot?".
    – bluejimmy
    Mar 1, 2017 at 22:34
  • Yes, it's certainly possible, but it's usually used to give a sense of excitement and building drama rather than to relate purely factual information. There's a pretty good sample of uses of the historical present here: grammar.about.com/od/fh/g/histpreterm.htm
    – stangdon
    Mar 1, 2017 at 23:06

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