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I was reading a graded reader book, and I noticed that the writer used present simple instead of continuous in the example below:

"Algernon: I think that is mean of you, Ernest, I must say. (Opening the case and examining it) However, it doesn't matter. Now I look at the inscription inside, I see that this isn't yours."

Shouldn't be: I am looking at the inscription inside, I am seeing that this is not yours? please clarify it to me!

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  • What was your source for this quote? It doesn't appear to match the original
    – gotube
    Jul 5, 2021 at 5:37
  • 1
    This has been repeated hundreds of times already, to new and veteran users alike but it needs to be reminded: Please always cite book titles, names of authors, and where possible, links to texts that are being quoted
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 6, 2021 at 10:55
  • Please clarify what you're Asking. Is your concern purely about the difference between 'Now I look at the inscription inside, I see that this isn't yours' and 'I am looking at the inscription inside, I am seeing that this is not yours'? Sep 30, 2023 at 22:26

4 Answers 4

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It helps to give the context surrounding the quote and a link to the text. After some googling, I found this script for The Importance of Being Earnest:

JACK. Do you mean to say you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know. I have been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it. I was very nearly offering a large reward.

ALGERNON. Well, I wish you would offer one. I happen to be more than usually hard up.

JACK. There is no good offering a large reward now that the thing is found.

[Enter Lane with the cigarette case on a salver. Algernon takes it at once. Lane goes out.]

ALGERNON. I think that is rather mean of you, Ernest, I must say. [Opens case and examines it.] However, it makes no matter, for, now that I look at the inscription inside, I find that the thing isn’t yours after all.

I don't know where you got the quote "Now I look at the inscription inside", but from what I found, the quote is "Now that I look at the inscription inside" [emphasis added].

As the focus isn't on action of looking, but on the result, the present progressive isn't appropriate, but the present perfect would work.

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In principle it might seem quite reasonable to use present continuous in OP's cited context. And in fact, it's quite reasonable in practice to do so in OP's exact context, where the stylistic choice of using the continuous verb adds a degree of "immediateness" to the utterance...

Now [that] I'm [actually] looking at the inscription inside, I [can] see that this isn't yours"

(where all the [optional] elements would also add emphasis / immediacy).


BUT this isn't the normal default, and it certainly wouldn't work in a closely related context such as...

I didn't expect England to win, but now that I think / am thinking of it, we definitely had the better team

Almost no native speaker would ever produce or accept the continuous verb in that context. It may be worth noting that many people would actually say ...now that I come to think of it...1, so you could say the verb form there is an infinitive - and again, no-one would ever think of saying ...now that I am coming to think of it...


1 Also note that [now that I] come to think of it is such a common idiomatic expression it even gets its own dictionary entry.

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  • I couldn't understand what you tried to explain; my English Level is B2. Jul 4, 2021 at 15:44
  • Syntactically there's nothing wrong with Now I look OR Now I am looking in your example, so I can't explain a "rule" saying which version you should use, because there isn't one. But even in your exact context, Simple Present is used more often than Present Continuous, and this is mainly because that's the version that's become idiomatically established. But I gave the "come to think of it" example because that particular one has become so strongly established some native speakers might even think (WRONGLY) that Now I'm coming to think of it is "ungrammatical". Jul 4, 2021 at 15:57
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In this sentence "now" does not mean "at this moment in time". It is a conjunction meaning "as a consequence of " or "because ". https://www.lexico.com/definition/now.

Also "see" does not mean literally "perceive with the eyes." It means "deduce from the information that I have" or "understand". https://www.lexico.com/definition/see

The verb in the clause after "now" could be in almost any tense. For example a sentence like "Now I have looked at the inscription inside, I see that this isn't yours" would be fine. (I looked at the inscription. I remembered what the inscription in your case says and it is different. Therefore, this is not your case.)

The "looking" is not a "continuous" action here. First I look at the inscription. Then I deduce something about the case. Then I tell you what I have deduced.

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Your text seems to have edited the original, which was written 125 years ago to sound like how certain upper-class people spoke in one time and place, to make the language more modern. But somewhere along the line, someone introduced an error. I think it was supposed to say,

However, it doesn't matter. Now that I look at the inscription inside, I see that this isn't yours."

You can’t omit the word “that” from this sentence, in American English. (Actually, as you’ve probably noticed and gotten frustrated, people often mumble or forget to say important words, and you just have to guess what they meant.)

When to use the simple present and when to use the present progressive can be tricky. Here, I think either way would work (“Now that I look at the inscription,” or “Now that I’m looking at the inscription”).

One time you’d have to use the present progressive is when you describe something that you’ve started but not finished doing. For example, let’s say that you’re playing the role of Algernon here. You get to the stage direction that says you’re supposed to open the case, but the prop in your hands is stuck, and you can’t get it to open. You might ad lib the line:

I think that is rather mean of you, Earnest—or maybe not. Now that I’m opening this thing, it’s harder than it looks. Your case might not be worth a reward after all.

You can’t say, “now that I open this thing,” because you aren’t able to open it yet. You’ve begun to open it, but you have not finished, so your action is in progress and you say “am opening.” However, you can say either, “Now that I try to open” it or “Now that I’m trying to open it.”

Or maybe the actor playing Earnest sees that the prop is stuck and asks, “Are you having trouble?” You might retort, “No, I open a case when I feel like it, and not a moment before.”

You can’t say either of those sentences the other way around. “*Do you have trouble?” is just not correct idiomatic English, and sounds wrong to native speakers, even though there’s no formal rule that it breaks. “I open a case when I feel like it,” has to be in the simple present because you’re talking about what you habitually or normally do, not what you happen to be doing at this moment.

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