Letters to the Professor

I am learning English at school and I enjoy it very much. But I have one problem, so perhaps you can help me. Do I say: "I live in Zakopane" or "I am living in Zakopane"? Having two present tenses in English is difficult for me. - Stephan P., Zakopane

Dear Stephan,
Yes, I understand your problem. But the problem is not with English, it is with the English teachers and the grammar books.

English is not like Latin or Polish or French. It has no future tense, and only two forms of a verb exist - the general or 'unmarked' verb (walk, live, say, etc) and the 'marked for past' version (walked, lived, said, etc). But if we only used these two versions of the verb the language would be very poor, and so we can use auxiliary verbs along with the main verb to enhance the meaning of what we are saying.

For example, the statement "I live in Zakopane" is a simple statement of where I live. "I lived in Zakopane" is another simple statement, but refers to the past. "I am living in Zakopane", "I was living in Zakopane", "I have lived in Zakopane" and "I had lived in Zakopane" use the auxiliary verbs 'be' and 'have' in their present and past versions to give a more complex set of meanings to the statement.

If I use 'be' as in "1 am living in Zakopane", I am saying that Zakopane is where I live now, but that I do not expect to live there for ever, and possibly telling you that I did not always live there in the past. 'Am, are, is' put the focus on the present time and so, by implication, suggest that the statement is not true of other periods of time. Similarly, "I lived in Zakopane" tells you that I do not live there any more, because the past form has been chosen instead of the general form. "I was living in Zakopane when my young sister was born" puts the focus on the time, but in this instance the time is past. In other words, the speaker is telling us that he has lived in more than one town during his life, and that the period in which he lived in Zakopane was a limited one.

If I wish to tell you that something was true and still is, I use the possessive verb 'have'- "I have lived in Zakopane all my life." If I put this possessive verb 'have' in the past form, it shows that it no longer applies. "I had lived in Zakopane until I joined the navy."

So you see there are not really two present tenses in English. If I say "I sleep very heavily and I dream a lot" I do NOT mean that I am sleeping at this moment nor that I am dreaming. These are general statements that apply over all time, not descriptions of the present.

If I wish to make the general statement "I climb mountains" refer to a specific time in the present or future, I add the verb 'be' in an appropriate form. "I am climbing Mount Everest" (present time); or "I am climbing Mount Everest next year" (future time). Note that there is no future form of the verb in English, we simply use a present tense and then state when it is to happen. If no time is mentioned, the present is assumed. There are two exceptions to this rule. The verbs 'have' and 'go' usually refer to the future not the present when used preceded by 'be', even with no time stated. "I am having a party", "I am going to Australia" would be generally understood as referring to the future rather than to the present.

English therefore uses the bare form of the verb as an infinitive, for general statements, and in subsidiary clauses ('when I go', 'if I go', etc). The speaker or writer has the choice of giving specific time information either by the use of an auxiliary verb or a specific time reference, or both ("I shall go", "1 am going", "I go next Wednesday, or "I am going next Wednesday").

Note that we never use 'be'+ verb for statements that are always true over all time. I cannot say "He is being very tall" or " the sun is rising in the East every morning". For these types of statement we always use the general tense, i.e. the bare verb ("He is very tall", "the sun rises in the East every morning"). So the use of 'be'+ verb makes the statement temporary: "I am typing this article (but I shall go to bed soon)". Therefore this combination, 'am/is/are' + main verb, is used to describe the present or the future. Either the verb marked for past (+ed or irregular equivalents) or the combination, 'was/were + main verb is used to refer to time past. The combination 'has/have + main verb is used to refer to both past and present; and the bare verb is used for general statements and in clauses where the time frame is irrelevant.

You can see that these ways of using verbs are very different from those of Polish or Latin or the other European languages derived from Latin. Unfortunately it is the grammatical framework designed to teach us Latin that is used by most textbooks, and so gives us unhelpful labels such as 'simple present', 'present continuous', etc.

So the short answer to your question, Stephan, is that you say "I live in Zakopane" unless your residence there is only temporary, when you would say "I am living in Zakopane".


John Williams,