Do you remember the present tense? (she walks, I read, he tells me, they buy some coffee, etc.) It’s probably one of the first things you learned in English. One place where you will often find the simple present tense is in captions–the explanatory writing that goes with a photo in a newspaper, magazine, etc.
In journalistic style, the captions are usually written in present and present continuous/progressive tense, as though the event is happening as you look at the picture. Of course, the actions have already occurred, so past tense may seem more logical. However, you can think of the photo’s events as “frozen in time.” If you study academic writing in English, you learn to do the same thing when referring to other writings (Dr. Krashen writes that reading and listening are important, etc.).
Through the Lens is a feature of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s website. Every week, images from around the Bay Area are posted, with captions. The captions show a mix of tenses depending on the situation. For example, in this week’s Through the Lens, we have these captions posted:
- 1. Reid Dillbeck clears snow from his home on Merced Avenue in South Lake Tahoe. 2. Heavy Sierra snow is lessening California’s drought worries.
(I’ve added numbers to make it clearer.) Sentence 1 is in present tense. It describes what is happening in the photo. Sentence 2 is in the present continuous/progressive. It gives context by describing an ongoing event that was still happening when the image was published.
- 1. An employee at Nick’s Restaurant in Pacifica gets light from a propane lantern as she makes coffee. 2. Like much of the city, Nick’s operated without power as heavy rains and wind kept pounding the coast.
Sentence 1 is present tense again, describing the photo. Sentence 2 is past tense, to describe an event that was over before the photo was published. (We lost power too, but only for a couple of hours.
If you’re interested in the San Francisco area, you can bookmark Through the Lens and get a regular look at life here.