Tense about tenses?

Just before Election Day, a student asked me why his Craft professor had made the following edit in one of his stories:

“The turnout will be seriously affected,” said Russell C. Gallo, the Republican candidate in the 45th district for the State Assembly, who runs is running against veteran Democratic member of the New York Assembly Steven H. Cymbrowitz.

You might think this clause calls for the simple present, runs, since the reporter is referring to something that is happening as he writes. But you’d be wrong. Notice the tenses I used in that sentence: is referring and is happening, both present progressive, also known as present continuous: auxiliary + present participle (-ing form).

In English, the correct use of those present tenses is counterintuitive — that is, the opposite of what you’d expect. If something is happening right now, you might expect it to take the simple present: he runs.  But in fact we use present continuous: he is running. Simple present is used for actions that take place customarily, or routinely, or habitually:

How many newspapers do you read (every day, or regularly)?

I read three or four before class — online, of course.  I also monitor several newscasts.


Which paper are you reading (right now)?

I’m reading The Post. 

In past tense, the continuous can be a little more complicated.

On Monday many candidates were running for office.  (By Wednesday, half of them were also-rans, i.e., losers.President Obama was running for re-election. He was running against Mitt Romney.

These are correct because, even though you’re talking about the past, you’ve pinpointed a moment in time. It’s as if you’ve specified a “right now” in the past.

In 2012 Mitt Romney ran against President Obama. It’s history, so simple past. But what about this?

This election season, President Obama ran for re-election.


This election season, President Obama was running for re-election.

In this case, either is correct. Yes, election season is over, but if you’re talking about it as a span of time, was running is also acceptable. In some contexts, you might choose it it to give your piece a greater sense of immediacy.

A future post will look at the most confusing tenses in English: the perfects. Questions? Send them in.




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