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CONTEXT

You are walking in the street and you see an old man on the other side stumble and fall to the ground. He tries to get up but he can’t. Nobody is helping him.

You say, to no-one in particular,

Why don’t they help him?!”

  • Why is the simple present acceptable here?

I am not concerned with the difference in meaning between using present simple and present continuous in this case. What I would like to understand what generalisable rule allows us to use the simple present here. We wouldn't say:

Look over there, the old man lies on the ground!

so why is it acceptable to use present simple with the question:

"Why don’t they help him?"

Please see the section on "Possible explanations". This is not a suggestion like "Why doesn’t he take an aspirin?/Why don’t you go to the doctor?" It’s something happening right now, when you’d normally use present continuous, not in the future, or regularly. Present continuous would be possible, but I think this usage would be more common.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS

  • I thought it’s because there is an inferred "...when/if people can see he needs help" and that the "when/if" is influencing the tense? Is this somehow related to conditional? Somehow, I feel this might be the best explanation: "Why don't they help him? If they help him, he will be all right".

  • Related to "performative present"? But this is nothing like "I warn you: don’t come back here".

  • Is it somehow present simple in commentary? You are viewing a scene and describing it as it happens, like a football match? But it doesn’t feel like that.

  • Is it just a ‘special case’? An answer in another post suggested that the construction “why don’t you (just)…” 'can be used as a rhetorical question basically equivalent to a rather crude and exasperated-sounding imperative'. The more detailed explanation goes over my head, and somehow I feel there must be a simpler explanation.

OTHER EXAMPLES (some of these may not be the same problem)

  • Why doesn’t the bus come?
  • Why don’t they overthrow the government?! I don’t understand!
  • Why doesn’t he accept the offer?
  • 1
    This question is clear and shows research effort. +1 – Centaurus Nov 2 '15 at 13:17
  • 2
    Because they're looking at the situation as a state of affairs, and not an event. There are degrees of this. I think very few people would use the continuous in "Why don't we fall off the Earth?" I think the same is true for "Why don't they overthrow the government?" The others, I think you could use either simple present or present continuous; I'd be more likely to say "Why aren't they helping him?" in the situation described in the OP. – Peter Shor Nov 2 '15 at 15:24
  • The 'state of affairs' is an appealing idea. It feels intuitively correct, but if by that, we mean the second common use of Simple Present for general truths, then it can't apply here. It's similar, I think, to what Barid Baran Acharya is saying below. The 'general truth' is that people normally help? I know we'd like that to be true, but don't most people consider the opposite to be true? Plus, even if it was true, does this qualify as a 'general truth'? – T. Ioca Nov 3 '15 at 11:08
  • Do is in the sentence only because the option of not using it sounds ridiculous and is actually archaic: Why help him not they? In this sentence, help is simple present and can refer to habitual action or something going on at the moment of speaking. In the latter case, it is akin to "running commentary." But again, since we don't talk like that, it sounds weird. In the declarative version, they don't help him sounds perfectly fine as running commentary. – Alan Carmack Nov 26 '16 at 2:30
  • @AlanCarmack That's not what the question is asking at all. (And “Why help him not they?” is utterly ungrammatical in all varieties of English that have been spoken for the past millennium or so. “Why help they him not?” would be the grammatical non-auxiliary version.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 26 '16 at 10:00
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The simple present tense in these sentences refers to the general time of "now." The speaker is indicating that an act of help would be appropriate at the present time.

The present continuous in these sentences refers to a more specific, ongoing time period. The speaker is indicating that an act of help should be actively occurring at the exact time that the speaker is asking the question.

Thus:

Why don't they help him?

  • Interpretation: I observe that there is a person in need of help, and I observe that at the present time no one is helping him. I expected that someone would have helped him by now, and looking around I don't observe anyone rushing to help him in the very near future.

Why aren't they helping him?

  • Interpretation: At this exact moment, I expect someone to be actively engaged in helping him. Perhaps he was being helped in the recent past, and perhaps he will be helped in the very near future. However, at this exact moment, I observe no one actively engaged in helping the individual.

Both are accurate (grammatically), and they are close enough semantically to be all but interchangeable. But I think that the first sentence implies that no help has come or will come (unless the situation changes, perhaps because the speaker is asking the question). The second sentence implies only that it's not happening in the present; the listener cannot infer anything about the period of time immediately before or after the speaking event.

If someone had helped the man and then left, the first sentence would be confusing, and the second sentence would be more likely to convey the speaker's intent (i.e. Why aren't they still helping him?).

On the other hand, if someone had promised to help the man and hadn't arrived yet, the first sentence would be a more general call of despair rather than a critique of the potential helper (i.e. Why isn't anyone at all helping?). The second sentence would be a rebuke regarding the fact that the potential helper had yet to arrive (i.e. Why isn't he/she already here to help him?).

  • Thank you, that is very detailed, but I feel it doesn't explain the convention being applied. I edited my original question, because I wanted to make it clear that it's the rule I am interested in rather than the semantics of simple present vs present continuous. – T. Ioca Nov 3 '15 at 10:09
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We use 'simple present tense' for what normally happens, what is natural to happen and for actions in the present time or for habitual or eternal truth.

• Wind blows.

• Flowers bloom

• Birds sing.

• Man helps.——— all these are natural, normal and expected of the doers to behave as such if otherwise nothing untoward happens. So, when men desist from what normally expected of them, we ask the question in simple present. We cannot use 'present continuous' as no one has so far come forward to help. To my mind, so long as help is not forthcoming, we would go on using simple present tense.

English language is very much practical. That is why it says, "I am better, not good". In my mother tongue, I use 'good' and 'present continuous' in a situation as in the post above.

  • I am not sure if this is correct, but I like the explanation and this is the kind of answer I was hoping for, but I'd like to see some competing theories :-) – T. Ioca Nov 3 '15 at 10:06
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I think the discussion here focuses too much on the tense and not enough on communicative purpose of the language. The vocabulary is chosen to provide a non-judgmental observation. 'Won't' implies unwillingness, just as 'can't' implies inability. 'Don''t' is simply an observation of fact and thus preferable for conveying the situational characteristics. Consider for instance, the following three sentences:

'Why don't you donate to charities?' This is most likely in response to a statement by the person being addressed. This could be answered what 'I can't' or 'I can, but I won't.'

The following two sentences can only really arise as progressed derivations of the first sentence, unless the speaker is aiming to be accusatory.

'Why can't you donate to charities?' This is either accusatory, or asked in response to an assertion that an ability to donate does not exist.

'Why won't you donate to charities?' This is either accusatory, or asked in response to a statement that the person being addressed has the ability to donate to charities, but refuses to do so.

Thus, 'don't' as a present tense communication choice is the starting point for the acquisition of further information. It's the least assumptive word to use.

  • 1
    An interesting observation, but the question is, in fact, specifically about the tense: "what generalisable rule allows us to use the simple present here?" – Hellion Nov 26 '16 at 4:30
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I think the key is in the "you say to no-one in particular": we connect the situation with what we expect "should" be done. Consider following example:

  • you're waiting for a phone call - you ask yourself and no-one in particular "why don't they call? and not "why aren't they calling?"

  • if you already point to a group of people who are busy doing something else., i.e, not helping, then I think you would formulate your question as follows: "why aren't they helping him?" (as opposed to just staring!).

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