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Help me understand how idiomatic this usage of the Present Simple is. Usually, PS conveys repeated actions within relatively long (or almost unlimited) time frames. For instance, “The sun rises in the East.” “We live in France.” “I like cheese.” But what bothers me is other examples in which it’s clear that the actions expressed by the Present Simple are within relatively short periods of time.

For example,
Example A 1) A: You were out very late last night. I know!

2) B: Quite right! I was out until three o'clock. And I had too many drinks. That's why my hand shakes.

Example B

1) A: What’s up with Jake? He is acting strangely today.

2) B: He offended me yesterday and now he apologizes every other minute.

Example C (this is a real quote from Obama’s speech)

The Republicans were a laugh line throughout the night, especially the presidential field that was, at the same time, holding its 17th debate in North Charleston, South Carolina. "Why do you laugh?" the president deadpanned at one point, to more laughs.

It’s obvious that in all these examples the actions “my hand shakes, he apologizes every other minute, why do you laugh” have started very recently and are not going to last for a long time. That is, the hand is not going to shake for years, he is not going to be apologizing every other minute for months, and they are not going to laugh after the debate is over.

Does it sound logical until now?

Now I wonder if I can apply this principle in other contexts. The contexts have been made up by me.

Example D

I have been witnessing my friend calling to his wife on the phone for 10 minutes. It is a series of calls which doesn’t seem to end immediately. In other words, I suppose that he will keep calling her for, at least, a few minutes more or maybe even more than that. Would it be correct to ask him in this situation: Why do you call her so many times? /Why do you call her every minute? / Why do you call her so often/frequently?

Example E

Let’s imagine that a group of people is having a conference. The conference is supposed to last for 3 weeks. There are a few subjects to discuss. And, let’s say, one of them is “The role of the internet access in rural areas”. What if this topic is being discussed during the first 5 days only. After that period a journalist covering the conference says: “The subject “The role of the internet access in rural areas” was being discussed only during the first five days but now the members of the conference don’t discuss it any more.

Would it be correct to say “don’t discuss it any more.”? Or would the Present Continuous be better here?

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    I think, in a lot of these instances I would tend to use the present continuous. But I am not entirely clear what, overall, you are asking. – WS2 Aug 30 '14 at 7:40
  • Examples A, B, C are taken from sources written by native speakers of English. As you can see they use PRESENT SIMPLE there. My question whether it is OK to use the PS in examples D,E,F? Plus, if you estimate the level of idiomaticity in examples A, B, C I will be grateful, too. – user1425 Aug 30 '14 at 7:54
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    There are subtleties involved. 'That's why my hand shakes' might imply an omission of 'when I try to grip something'. '... he's apologising every other minute' is by no means unidiomatic, but sounds in a less formal register than the original. 'Why do you laugh?' is mock-formal, mock-headmasterly. The better choice here. Contrast Jack Nicholson's 'Whad're you laughin' at!?' (as the Joker). The only choice there. With D, I'd actually choose 'Why do you call her every minute' or 'Why are you calling her so many times?' from your options (though I'd choose different words). E? prob. not PC. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 30 '14 at 10:08
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A lot of it comes down to how the speaker/writer wants to describe the verb in question.

In general we use Present Simple when we're describing the action as a state.

Present Continuous is used for several reasons, and here are the most common ones:

  • The verb is ongoing and not completed.

I'm having lunch. Call me in ten minutes.

  • The verb is expressed as something temporary or at least new and not assumed permanent.

I'm following a new diet. I'm living up the street.

  • The verb recurs and its duration includes the present.

She's calling me every day now.

(This emphasizes the repetition; if we wanted to describe it as a state, we'd just use "She calls me every day.")

  • We're emphasizing the activity or energy in the verb:

Every Saturday night when I go out I'm drinking like crazy. Every Sunday morning when I get up my head is hurting.

Now to your example sentences:

That's why my hand shakes.

This sounds odd because in this context my hand doesn't usually shake. You can still use it but it has a subtly 'literary' affectation about it. (This is based on my experienced. Maybe in another country's English this is more common.)

...now he apologizes every other minute.

This sounds fine, as it's expressed as a new state of things. It would also be natural to say the following, to emphasize the temporary and repetitive nature:

...now he's apologizing every other minute.

Why do you laugh?

This is another example of 'literary' affectation and is idiomatic. You may say:

Why do you laugh? Why do you smile?

These aren't normal state verbs (as in "Why do you wonder?", "What do you see?"), and they're more often used in the Present Continuous than in the Present Simple.

In Example D I would prefer the Present Continuous to emphasize the temporary and repetitive nature of the verb:

Why are you calling her so much?

This is also pretty common:

Why do you keep calling her?

Note that above keep is used as a state verb and calling is now a present participle.

(By the way, in English we call people and don't call to people. This is a really common mistake for non-native speakers.)

In the final example, it's more natural to say:

...the members aren't discussing it anymore.

This is because we're thinking only about a temporary context of the conference, which will last a finite time. So for the remainder of the conference, they aren't discussing it anymore.

Another good way to express it is:

...the members won't be discussing it anymore (for the remainder of the conference).

Lastly, note that we can bend common practice for effect. I can say both sentences in each pair below:

I love this music. I'm loving this music.

Now we're leaving. Now we leave.

It breathes! It's breathing!

These can be subtle and up to the speaker's or writer's creative choice. You can find more descriptions about these exceptions online if you want to learn more about them.

  • "Now we leave." Is it a planned action or spontaneous? Or it depends? – user1425 Sep 26 '14 at 1:06
  • It can be either. The context may help us know or it may not. I can say to my friend, "Now we leave." after he says goodbye to his family. This can be according to our plan. But I could also say it just after he knocked over an expensive vase at a party -- I've just decided that I want to leave, so I'm saying "Well, now it's time to go.". – Epanoui Sep 26 '14 at 1:32
  • So, in this context it would also be OK to say it? "Well, I have told you all the news I knew and now I go to take a nap." – user1425 Sep 26 '14 at 7:12
  • In that context it would sound a bit unnatural, though it would be understood. To me that has a feeling of "I've completed my plan to tell you the news, and now is the part of my plan where I take a nap.". When you use the present simple about the future (including the very near future) it usually feels as though it's somehow written or already decided, so if you use it to describe a spontaneous decision it's almost like you're describing it as an an outsider telling a story. I realize that this description is subtle and abstract, but I hope that it helps some. – Epanoui Sep 26 '14 at 18:27
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The short answer here is that the context makes these uses of the simple present appropriate, specifically, the fact that there is a sense of before-then-now in the examples you provide.

In Examples A and B you could substitute the Present Continuous and there would be little change. Alter the context, though, and you can see how removing a sense of change (that is, the then-versus-now) alters the implication between Present Simple and Present Continuous

A:

What's wrong?! Your hand is shaking! (What recent malady or scare have you experienced to cause your hand to shake?)

What's wrong with him? His hand shakes. (What chronic illness or condition does he suffer from?)

What's wrong with you? Your hand shakes. (This would be acceptable and understandable, but the phrasing is not quite colloquial. It reads more like screenplay dialogue.)

Example C I won't comment on because when someone uses a repeated catchphrase for humorous effect, rhythm and brevity may play a role in choosing Present Simple vs Present Continuous.

Example D: The most colloquial phrasing of the question that (I think) you have in mind is: "Why are you calling her so frequently?" Note this lacks the then-vs-now context of the earlier examples.

"Why do you call her every minute?" (This implies, like ordinary PS, that your friend does this very habitually, and that this one evening of repeat phone calls is not unordinary behavior for him. Note too that you may come off as rude)

Example E: What you have is perfectly idiomatic. Note again a then-vs-now context. Changing your sentence to Present Continuous would be appropriate for a news reporter describing a conference that is currently ongoing, that is, at the moment of speaking or at the time of print.

"The subject 'The role of the internet access in rural areas' was being discussed only during the first five days but now the members of the conference are not discussing it any longer.' (implies the conference is still going on.)

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