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Suppose there are two situations:

  1. A line of people waiting outside some store is getting very long and the line goes around a street corner.

  2. A ribbon is glued around a water pipe.

Suppose the conditions in both situations are current conditions. I am exploring the possible usage of the present tense of the verb "wrap" for those two situations:

The line of people wraps around the street corner.
The ribbon wraps around the pipe.

Is the usage of the present-tense "wrap" to describe those two current conditions correct?

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Yes. And the reason why the present tense makes sense here is subtle and important.

Verbs of motion can also describe the sizes and shapes of objects

In English, it is very common to use a verb whose primary meaning is a kind of motion, to refer to an object or situation that occupies the path or area traversed by that motion. If you want to "think in English", this is an important thing to learn to do. The present tense (not the present progressive) fits this meaning, describing the length, height, size, shape, etc. of the object.

This is the same principle that explains the examples with "run" that you asked about recently ("a path runs for 2.5 miles" and "the speed limit only runs to the state line").

Here are some more examples, with the principle spelled out:

The path runs 2.5 miles.

A person running along the path, from one end to the other, would run 2.5 miles. So, in English, you say that the path itself "runs" 2.5 miles. If you can get comfortable with this example, the other examples will start to make more sense.

The building rises ten storeys. [Source]

A mouse starting at the ground and crawling up the side of the building, all the way to the top, would rise ten storeys. So, in English, you say that the building itself "rises" ten storeys.

The power cord wraps around the table leg.

As with "run" and "rise", "wrap" is primarily a verb, meaning to enclose an object in some kind of flexible material, like thin paper or a ribbon. The action of wrapping the power cord around the table leg leaves it in a certain position. So, in English, you say that the power cord itself "wraps" around the table leg.

Golden Gate Park stretches for miles. [Source]

"Stretch" is primarily a verb, meaning to pull on the ends or edges or something flexible so it becomes longer or occupies more area. You could imagine someone pulling on the edges a small area of land and stretching it out so it covers several miles. That might require a stretch of your imagination, but that's how the metaphor works.

Market Street cuts diagonally through San Francisco.

If you imagine the act of cutting San Francisco approximately in half, with a huge knife (seven miles long), you could cut a line occupying the same path as Market Street. So, in English, you say that Market Street itself "cuts" through San Francisco.

Route Napoleon snakes through the Provincial landscape. [Source with photograph]

The word "snake" is primarily a noun, meaning a kind of reptile that has no arms or legs. People sometimes stretch the noun "snake" into a verb for the kind of motion that snakes do. "We will spend the last 3/10 of a mile snaking through Case Creek [that is, running along a twisty creek]" (Source) And so, in English, you can use the verb "snake" to describe the shape of something that follows a twisty path similar to the paths that snakes follow—even something like a road, which is thousands of times larger than a snake.

This even applies to the law, but it’s not a rule

These ways of using a verb for motion to describe the extent of an object that occupies the path of that motion can become very far-flung indeed, as this last example illustrates:

The speed limit runs only to the state line.

If you imagine the police running after someone who is driving a car faster than the speed limit, they would stop at the state line if the speeder crossed into the next state without being caught. So, in English, you say that the jurisdiction of the law "runs" only to the state line. It doesn't "run" beyond the state line. Here, the verb of motion describes the extent of the legal authority of the speed limit. It makes an analogy with a linear path of motion to describe an area of legal jurisdiction. Native English speakers seldom notice how wild this analogy is. This kind of analogy is so common and familiar, people understand it without effort.

Lastly, I should mention that this is not a rule. You can't do this with just any verb. There's no rule for which verbs you can use this way and which you can't. I have a hard time imagining it with "throw", but I wouldn't be surprised if someone can think of a situation where it would make sense.

Hopefully the above examples give you some idea of how common and ordinary it is for verbs of motion to describe a size or shape in English. English speakers are accustomed to thinking this way, and they feel comfortable taking it to some amazing lengths, as the last few examples show. It can seem bizarre if you grew up speaking a language where this way of using verbs is not common. Learning this is not a matter of learning the definitions of the verbs. To learn it, you have to get used to thinking of the path of something moving (dynamically) as also being done by the path itself (statically). You'll get used to it.

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Yes, both are correct. Wrap usually carries a sense of completeness, in terms of being completely encircled or enveloped, as in the second sentence: the ribbon goes all the way around and meets itself. Likewise, if one wraps a package, it is entirely covered; if one is wrapped in a garment, then it goes all the way around one.

The use in the first sentence is a common phrase, but does not carry the completeness sense (presumably the line doesn't form a circle around the literal corner). I'm not inclined to consider this a colloquialism, nor a quirk of a "corner" not being something that could reasonably be fully encircled, because I can think of other similar uses that fit neither of those criteria, e.g. "The hose wrapped around to the back of the house", "The tattoo wrapped around to his back."

The way to think of this may be that there is an implied "partially" in the sentence--a line that has "wrapped around the corner" has partially wrapped around the block. The hose could conceivably wrap all the way around the hose, but in this case only wraps halfway.

  • IMO, you're kind of missing the point of the usage: One wouldn't say "The line WRAPS around the street corner," the expression is: "The line of people is WRAPPED around the building." "Wrap" is used in this instance because the proximity of the people to the structure gives an impression that they are (or, practically are) encircling it like a ribbon. A line of people in reference to a street corner would simply be described as, "reaching" or "going" to the corner. – Oldbag Mar 2 '15 at 11:27
  • @Oldbag I'm afraid I have to disagree completely. "Wrap around the corner" is an entirely common phrase. If you only use wrap in the literal sense, as you suggest, the people would only be "wrapped around the building" if the end of the line extended all the way back around to the entrance. A line could be described as "reaching/going to the corner", but that would not convey the full sense of "wrapped around the corner": that the line turns the corner and goes beyond it. Perhaps "reaches around the corner". – Matthew W Mar 2 '15 at 14:58
  • You're agreeing with me. "Wrap around the corner," IMPLIES the BUILDING'S corner - not the street corner. If you don't believe me, picture (Seriously, PICTURE IN YOUR MIND...) saying it in an empty lot (with no structures) and a line of people extending around the corner of a pathway. You wouldn't say "wraps around the corner", would you? (If you would, you're wrong.) – Oldbag Mar 2 '15 at 15:37
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    Actually, my question is not about whether the line of people is completely around the corner. My question is whether the present tense of "wrap" can be used to describe a CURRENT condition in the same way that the verb "surround" is used in "a wall surrounds the house". – meatie Mar 3 '15 at 1:04
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    @meatie Absolutely, the simple present wraps is fine here. I took your question to be about meaning, rather than tense. Just so you know, you might also encounter the past participle used as a predicate adjective: "The ribbon is wrapped around the pipe." I would regard the two as identical in meaning. – Matthew W Mar 3 '15 at 2:03

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