Saturday, October 23, 1999

Wallace GGBB 523 - Gnomic Present 

D. Gnomic Present

1. Definition

The present tense may be used to make a statement of a general, timeless fact. “It does not say that something is happening, but that something does happen"

The action or state continues without time limits. The verb is used “in proverbial statements or general maxims about what occurs at all times.” This usage is common.

2. Semantics and Semantic Situations

The gnomic present is distinct from the customary present in that the customary present refers to a regularly recurring action while the gnomic present refers to a general, timeless fact. It is distinct from the stative present (a subcategory of the customary) in that the stative present involves a temporal restriction while the gnomic present is generally atemporal.

There are two predominant semantic situations in which the gnomic present occurs.24 The first includes instances that depict deity or nature as the subject of the action. Statements such as “the wind blows” or “God loves” fit this cate­gory. Such gnomic presents are true all the time. There is a second kind of gno­mic, slightly different in definition: the use of the present in generic statements to describe something that is true any time (rather than a universal statement that is true all the time). This kind of gnomic present is more common. Thus, prag­matically, it is helpful to note a particular grammatical intrusion: A gnomic verb typically takes a generic subject or object. Most generics will be subjects (but note the first example below). Further, the present participle, especially in such formulaic expression as PAS hO + present participle and the like, routinely belong here.

3. Key to Identification

One key is to add as a general, timeless fact. But this does not cover all situa­tions. Another rule of thumb is to translate the verb as does rather than is doing. Further, one should especially note whether the subject is generic (a common key is the indefinite pronoun TIS, substantival participle [especially with PAS], or a substantival adjective).

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