According to the Oxford Dictionary, present simple is used to describe the story in novels, but does that also apply to actions being done by characters at a precise moment? Now I know that present continuous is used to talk about actions happening at the moment, so why shouldn't that apply to actions in books and films as well? Unfortunately, the examples I found in the Oxford Dictionary didn't help much to answer my question since they all refer to events rather than current actions.

When Catherine's father adopts the starving orphan boy, Catherine's brother feels deeply hurt and resentful. She, on the other hand, develops an immensely strong bond with Heathcliff, which becomes an all-consuming love. Upon her father's death, Hindley becomes the head of the family and forces Heathcliff to assume the position of a sevant. [...]

What if the characters were, for example, talking and laughing about something at a very precise moment, which tense would I have to use to describe that?

  • Oxford dictionary (if it really says that) is wrong! The tense used when telling a story is entirely up to the author, and different tenses (even in the same story) are often used creatively. What you are probably seeing are suggestions for the fledgling writer, and many authors have ignored them with good effect. – Hot Licks Jun 2 '17 at 22:23
  • @Hot Licks I think OP is referring not to how the author would write the story, but rather to how a reader or someone after watching a movie would summarise the plot of the book / movie or describe certain scenes in the present tense. – English Student Jun 2 '17 at 22:45

If I am understanding your question correctly you would still use the simple present.

One day, while spying on the Lintons with Heathcliff, Catherine is injured by their dog when it bites her.

Here I am talking about Catherine being injured at the time the dog bites her, and it is still in the simple present. Or:

"At 12:51 after returning from Thrushcross Grange Catherine says to Heathcliff 'Why, how very black and cross you look!', which Heathcliff takes offense to and refuses to shake her hand."

There is no reason not to use the simple present in these situations.

  • Hm... what about this sentence: – Sebastian Mar 4 '17 at 18:16
  • Yesterday at 12:51, I was walking down the street. Currently, a lot of people are learning English. Are you listening to me? Here, you need to use the present continuous because it's happening then/now, at a precise time. Using the simple form would be incorrect, right? Why don't you use the present continous for describing actions that are happing at the moment in the fictional world? – Sebastian Mar 4 '17 at 18:22
  • Those sentences are correct. The last two "Currently a lot of people are learning English" and "Are you listening to me" are both present continuous because they are happening right now (it doesn't matter that the people may have started learning English a while ago, the point is that they are still in the process of learning it now). The "Yesterday at 12:51 I was walking down the street" is past continuous (because of the "was"). It's describing an action that was in progress at some point in the past. – Matthew Calvin Mar 4 '17 at 18:42
  • Likewise above we could say "At 12:51 Catherine is walking across the moor, when suddenly she spies Heathcliff". Actually we could also say "One day Catherine is walking across the moor, when suddenly she spies Heathcliff". The present continuous isn't used for something that is happening right at the moment (e.g. Catherine saying something above), rather it is used for an action which is still in progress (learning english, walking down the street/across the moors) – Matthew Calvin Mar 4 '17 at 18:47
  • As to why English says that walking across the moor at 12:51 is an action that is still in progress (so requiring the continuous tense), while saying something at that same time is an action that is completed (so requiring a simple tense), I can't give a good justification for that unfortunately. It's just one the structural things about the English lnaguage perceives things happenings – Matthew Calvin Mar 4 '17 at 18:50

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