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I'm doing my best in distinguishing between the meaning of the Present Simple form and the meaning of the Present Continuous form. Every day I read some texts and highlight the extracts consisting such grammar that perplex me.

I'm asking you to help me make sense of all this.

  1. Labour's Hillary Benn — who chairs the Brexit select committee — said it was a "big step forward" and called it "significant". (The BBC's article)

Why is the verb used in the Present Simple form here? I consider the action to be temporary, because this person is a chairwoman at the moment, not forever. Am I wrong?

  1. From the UK to South Korea, seismic "detectives" are tracking the causes of anomalous tremors. (The BBC's article)

I don't understand why the continuous form is used in the phrase. The author tells us about doing some special things which are a part of the job of those people. So they do this regularly, not at the moment of speaking.

  1. By listening carefully to what the ground is telling us, companies and governments may be better equipped to react — before it is too late. (The BBC's article)

Why is the Present Continuous chosen to express the thought which is similar to the "general truth", in a way? It is hard to argue with the author's statement, so isn't the Present Simple more appropriate?

  1. This potential for habitat-switching leads to some pretty fantastical possibilities. (The BBC's article)

I have extracted this sentence from the text about the fauna of the distant future. The authors have some hypotheses and share them with readers. I wonder why the Present Simple form is used here. I think that the action is happening now (better say, during the time we live in), and there is no result at the moment. Such meaning of the phrase should be conveyed through the continuous form, shouldn't it?

  1. The National Museum of Singapore transports visitors back 2000 years in time to experience life and death in the ancient Roman Empire. A new exhibition, Pompeii: Life in a Roman Village 79 CE reveals daily life in a city steeped in legend and mystery. (The Cambridge Student's Book's text)

Why is the Present Simple form chosen? In my opinion, an exhibition is a temporary event, so doesn't the continuous form better convey such meaning? Or, by using the Present Simple form, the author wants to emphasize that the action is "intermittent" and recurring? I mean that the days of the exhibition pass, new visitors come, so all of this can be described as something that happens regularly.

Now as for "reveals", why doesn't the author use the Present Continuous form? The new exhibition is time-limited, and it isn't permanent. I think that we should choose the Present Continuous in such a case.

  1. Proton decay has never been observed so far despite some heroic research efforts. But this merely tells us that it takes trillions of years, if it happens. (The BBC's article)

I wonder whether it isn't possible to use the continuous form here. The phrase can be interpreted as the conclusion reached at the moment of speaking, it seems to me.

  1. This once enabled people to petition the king in private without risk to his security but nowadays just provides great amusement to tourists. (The Cambridge Student's Book's text)

Why does the author use the Present Simple form? We see some situation in the past which has changed in the present, so we can't call the action happening in general. In my opinion, there are two temporary actions in the phrase (one in the past and one in the present), that's why we should use the continuous form.

  1. The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves. (The BBC's article)

Isn't the Present Simple more appropriate here? People's life is under constant supervision by God and not only at the moment of speaking.

  1. Winfrey, who plays the butler's wife, was asked if she had "ever been called the N-word". (The Guardian's news)

Why isn't the continuous form chosen? I think playing some role is an actor's "temporary state" because they don't play a same role all their life and the roles change. The butler's wife is Winfrey's current role, so, in my opinion, we should use the Present Continuous to convey such meaning.

  1. More and more Jordanians are also breeding dogs and cats, and owners now proudly stroll through the capital with their pets on a leash. (The Yahoo!News' article)

I wonder why the author doesn't use the continuous form here. There are two actions ("are also breeding" and "stroll through") in the phrase. The former illustrates a change that has started to happen and the latter is a process going on around the time of speaking. I don't understand why the Present Continuous form isn't chosen to show the process.

  1. I'm not making a stand against progress. I simply find life and work generally far easier without carrying what my 90-something aunt rather quaintly calls a "portable telephone". (The Cambridge Student's Book's text)

I think the Present Simple form is more appropriate when the author tells us about their ideal of living, not about some fleeting, ephemeral wish.

  • 1
    Not really relevant, but Hillary Benn is not a chairwoman. Hillary can be both a man's and a woman's name, and Mr Benn is a man. – James K Mar 6 at 20:11
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Sorry you didn't get an answer earlier to this.. I suspect it may be because your question was so big it scared off some folks..

In many of these example sentences, I think, one could potentially use either the simple or continuous form, and both would make sense. The choice of which one often comes down to what the speaker wants to emphasize about the situation.

The present simple is often used for habitual or recurring actions, or things that happen in a general sense to lots of people. This is the sense given by the following examples:

Hillary Benn — who chairs the Brexit select committee

(whenever the committee meets, he chairs it)

The National Museum of Singapore transports visitors back 2000 years

A new exhibition, ... reveals daily life in a city

but nowadays just provides great amusement to tourists.

(they do it for every visitor/tourist, when they visit them)

owners now proudly stroll through the capital with their pets

(this happens over and over, on a recurring basis, by many people)

Note that all of these cases have an implied "when" somewhere in them. They are not necessarily talking about something happening right this instant, but in a more general sense are talking about something that happens (regularly) whenever some other event or condition occurs.

The following example actually also comes about from the "recurring action" sense originally, even though many of the cases it applies to don't work that way anymore:

Winfrey, who plays the butler's wife

Once upon a time, most actors did stage productions of plays, etc, which had multiple showings over a period of time, so each night, for example, the actor would get up on stage and play the role (as a recurring action). Nowadays, most productions are movies/TV/etc which actually only done once, recorded, and re-shown, so the actor is not actually repeating the action every time, but we still use this present simple form when talking about an actor playing a role of a currently-showing production of something.

The present simple is also often used whenever referring to a position or job somebody has or does (with the implication that they do that job on a regular basis), so this is also part of the reason why it is used for the "chairs the committee" and "plays the butler's wife" examples, as well.

The present simple is also generally used when talking about some sort of general truth, which is not tied to any particular point in time (that is, it is expected it will always be true no matter when you're considering it). That is why it's used in the following examples:

potential for habitat-switching leads to some pretty fantastical possibilities

But this merely tells us that it takes trillions of years, if it happens

(for both of these, it's not saying that anything is necessarily happening right now, it's just saying that considering the premise ultimately results in a given conclusion, and that premise would always produce that conclusion, no matter when the premise was presented or considered by somebody)

Another way of looking at these is that they also have an implied "when" along the lines of "whenever someone considers that premise".

On the other hand, the use of the present continuous strongly implies that we are (right now) in the middle of some sort of ongoing action that takes some time, and has not been completed yet:

seismic "detectives" are tracking the causes of anomalous tremors

(they haven't finished tracking them down yet)

listening carefully to what the ground is telling us

(the ground is currently telling us things (whether we're listening or not), and is going to continue to tell us things)

The knowledge that Big God is watching makes sure we behave ourselves

(Big God has been watching us up to now and will continue to watch us, it's not just a one-time or once-in-a-while thing)

I'm not making a stand against progress

(making a stand: To not just stand up for right now, but to continue standing up for it for however long is necessary)

Note that none of this really has anything to do with whether a condition was or was not true in the past. It has more to do with whether it is an ongoing process we're currently in the middle of doing (which will end eventually), or whether it's a repetitive thing (which may or may not be happening at this instant but does happen from time to time).

As noted, a bunch of these could be phrased either way depending on what one wanted to emphasize, for example, we could say:

Hillary Benn — who is chairing the Brexit select committee

(This says essentially the same thing, but presents it as a currently-ongoing condition which will end at some point, so it emphasizes that the current situation is temporary and will end)

seismic "detectives" track the causes of anomalous tremors

(This presents it as an activity that they do over and over again, and they have presumably tracked some already, and will track others in the future, but doesn't have the implication the other one did that they're currently in the middle of some larger process which they haven't completed yet (they may not actually be tracking anything right this moment))

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