4
  1. I am writing this letter to invite you to my town.
  2. I write this letter to invite you to my town.

What is the difference between these two sentences?

16

In a context like this there is no substantive difference between the simple present and the progressive present: both designate a current activity.

In Present-day English, however, the simple present 'marks' the utterance as distinctly formal; it would be used, for instance, in a legal or bureaucratic notice (We write to inform you . . .), or in an academic paper (What we suggest, then, is that . . .). In more casual communications the simple present is usually reserved for habitual or repeated activities which have been and will be performed during an era which extends beyond the current timeframe (He writes for the Journal), and current, temporary activities are expressed with the progressive (He's writing for the Journal these days).

  • What an enlightening answer! – Khan Nov 16 '15 at 17:01
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    I like to think of the formal use of the simple present as an abbreviation of a phrase containing "hereby", e.g. "we hereby write to inform you..." – talrnu Nov 16 '15 at 19:04
  • @talrnu +1 Yes, quite right. (see my answer below). – Araucaria Nov 17 '15 at 13:56
  • +1 But ..., niggle, I think that because suggest is nearly always performative, it's predominantly used in the present simple as opposed to the continuous anyhow, whether it's spoken or written and whether it's formal or not. – Araucaria Nov 17 '15 at 14:10
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    @Araucaria - Performativity is an important factor I overlooked. But counterniggle: performativity is only possible in first-person utterances; what about The Director suggests that I write you to . . . * or *What Prof. Pullum suggests is that . . .? – StoneyB Nov 17 '15 at 14:29
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The first sentence is quite normal. The second sentence is a bit formal sounding. Perhaps too formal for this particular sentence.

We often use the present simple when our act of communication itself performs some kind of official function:

  • I now pronounce you man and wife.
  • I write to inform you that we are disconnecting your meter.
  • I dub you Sir Loin of Beef.
  • I hereby name this ship Lunar Sea.
  • I call on those present to upvote this answer.
  • -

... and so forth. Even though the pronouncing, informing, dubbing, naming and calling are happening right now, we use the present simple because of the special function of the utterance or writing.

The important factor which allows us to use the present simple here is that the actual act of speaking or writing itself is literally performing the pronouncing, informing, dubbing, naming or calling. We could introduce each sentence with the words "By my act of speaking (or writing), I hereby ..." Consider:

  • By this act of speaking, I pronounce you man and wife.
  • By this act of writing, I inform you that we are disconnecting your meter.
  • By this act of speech, I dub you Sir Loin of Beef.
  • By this act of speaking, I name this ship Lunar Sea.
  • By this act of speaking, I call on those present to upvote this answer.

Note that this can sound quite official and pompous.

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