I was watching a movie with subtitles and I found many instances where it used two different tense for referring background sounds.

For example: Sirens wail; motor whirring; engine revving; phone rings, etc.

So why do we use simple present?

To refer background noise or sound in subtitles in some cases even when the things are happening right at the moment? Is it to give effect the historical present or narrative present which is one of the uses of simple present?

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    I’m voting to close this question because movie subtitles are not regular Engish. Furthermore, the difference between the simple and progressive / continuous aspect is already discussed in many questions on this site. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 13:54
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    @MarcInManhattan: By that token, meaning of the word "enter" in context (alluding to stage directions) would be Off Topic. But I think such questions are okay here. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 14:21
  • @FumbleFingers The key for me is how useful this is for learning English. I don't think that the peculiar aspects of subtitles (many of which we would consider ungrammatical in other contexts) are very useful for reading English in general. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 15:53
  • But the question specifically asks about the usage in the context of subtitles! If you throw that aspect out, the question is probably "Too Broad" anyway. And it would "lack context". Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 16:01
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    Well, as it happens, there's a significant usage difference between ordinary "narrative in the past" contexts and subtitle contexts here. Normal narrative contexts tend to use Simple Past for something that rattled, whereas subtitles would usually say it was rattling. And if that weren't the case, the OP might have had no reason to ask about anything in the first place. Besides which, I write and correct subtitles myself (usually English for both audio and text), but I often wish non-Anglophones who translate foreign movies knew English better, so I'm up for helping OP here! :) Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 16:20

2 Answers 2


The effect is basically to distinguish a point in time from a span of time.

A siren wails (once); an engine is revving (for some time).

However, in practice, the real situations referred to can easily overlap. The siren might be wailing for longer than the engine is revving.

In such cases, if the choice isn't arbitrary (free variation), it could be motivated by euphony, screen space, familiarity of the collocation, etc. For example, I think "I hear an engine revving" would be much more common than "I hear an engine rev" because typically revving implies a continuous effort.

One more option that occurs to me is plot moment. If someone reacts to the siren — it has some immediate effect on the action — the simple present seems more appropriate, whereas if the noise is already established or is in the background, the continuous present seems more appropriate.

  • I think you massively overstate the "one-time / continuous" distinction. Doors and windows that rattle in the wind are usually doing so "continuously", but a usage chart shows that we massively prefer rattled in the wind over was rattling in the wind. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 16:08
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    @FumbleFingers I think you massively overstate "massively overstate", given the caveats I included in my answer :) Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 16:36
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    You're quite right. I'm ashamed to admit I only read the first two lines before downvoting and posting that somewhat dumb "justification". I've just made a "non-edit" so I can change it. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 17:04
  • But a siren can wail over a prolonged period of time. In that respect it's very much like a phone ringing. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 18:36
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    Unless a mod clears them away, I'm content to leave my comments here as testament to my (hopefully, not too common! :) fallibility! In future I'll try to remember - Read the whole answer before reacting! Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 21:42

I have a folder containing several dozen movie subtitle files, so I just ran a case-insensitive search for the sequence phone ring (which picks up all variations, including Telephone rings, CELLPHONE RINGING, etc.).

The search string occurred in 6 different movies - as ...ringing in 5, and ...rings in one. I really don't think any subtitler would ever stop to consider the exact context within the movie before deciding which verb form to use, but it's obvious which choice they usually make, even though the choice itself makes no difference.

  • Thanks Fumble. Even in the movies that I have watched with subtitles, Present continuous tense is used a lot more than simple present for bg sounds.
    – RADS
    Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 1:56
  • And I was comparing it with the narrative present. It seems it is altogether a different thing.
    – RADS
    Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 2:10

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