When using a non-progressive eventive sentence in the present tense, it typically cannot describe a particular event: it often describes a habit or a generalization. E.g. if one says "John smokes a pipe", the listener would understand that this is a habit.

However, if a novel writer uses "John smokes a pipe" as a title of a chapter, the reader would understand that the chapter will describe a specific event where John smoked a pipe.

Why? Is there any name to this phenomena?

  • 3
    Yes, there is a name for it. The sentences and noun and verb phrases are called Generic. There is some information about them here. Apr 11, 2015 at 19:17
  • ... For 'some information' read 'the book'. Apr 11, 2015 at 19:53
  • You did say "a habit or a generalization," right? Did you Google around a bit?
    – Kris
    Apr 12, 2015 at 10:38

2 Answers 2


You ask 'Why'.

Originally the chapter might have been entitled, e.g.

CHAPTER V In which John smokes a pipe.

This indicates that smoking is probably not a habit of John's. He does it only in this part of the narrative.

Example The Unwilling Adventurer




In linguistics and rhetoric, the historic present or historical present (also called dramatic present or narrative present) refers to the employment of the present tense when narrating past events. It is widely used in writing about history in Latin and some modern European languages; in English it is used above all in historical chronicles (listing a series of events); it is also used in fiction, for 'hot news' (as in headlines), and in everyday conversation (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 129–131). In conversation, it is particularly common with 'verbs of communication' such as tell, write, and say (and in colloquial uses, go) (Leech 2002: 7). Historic present is the form recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary, whereas historical present is the form in Merriam Webster.

Literary critics and grammarians have said that the historic present has the effect of making past events more vivid. More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions not by making an event present, but by marking segments of a narrative, foregrounding events (that is, signalling that one event is particularly important, relevant to others) and marking a shift to evaluation (Brinton 1992: 221).


  • This is just not it. The OP has already recognized and mentioned "generalization."
    – Kris
    Apr 12, 2015 at 10:37

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