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I've noticed twice now that in situations where someone is reporting past events, they suddenly switch to the present tense for no apparent reason. The first example is from this fairy tale. The second paragraph starts out in the past tense and then turns into the present tense:

Кот ходил, ходил и набрел на избушку. Залез на чердак и полеживает себе. А захочет есть — пойдет в лес, птичек, мышей наловит, наестся досыта — опять на чердак, и горя ему мало!

The second sentence in particular seems to read "He climbed up to the attic, and lies down"! This kind of change in tense is completely inconceivable in English. What motivates it in Russian?

The other example I noticed was in some song lyrics:

Мы встретились в маршрутке (past tense)

Под номером один, едем и молчим. (present tense)

Он говорит - доброе утро, (present tense)

А я не слышу будто. (present tense)

Он сжал мне руку сильно... (past tense)

  • I think it's a literary license, for one, and also to convey a continuous action. For instance, "полеживает" in "залез на чердак и полеживает себе" should probably be translated with "lying there" rather than "lies down". – Victor Bazarov Sep 29 '15 at 12:06
  • BTW, switching between past tense and present is not unheard of in English literature, as well. I am sure if you look, you can find example of that (I'm too lazy to search now). – Victor Bazarov Sep 29 '15 at 12:08
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    I guess you can only put up with this :) There's no any specific rule regarding this afaik. If one's telling a story, he/she can mention a period of time in the past when the story actually happened and continue narration using the present tense. – Ivan Sep 29 '15 at 12:10
  • Could this be done with perfective verbs? (ie. using a past tense perfective verb in an otherwise past tense context) Or only imperfective? Also, I'm not really looking for any kind of rule for when this should be done, more to get a feel for what it expresses. For example, for a native speaker, in what way would the sentence from the fairy tale feel different if it was entirely in the past tense? – Jack M Sep 29 '15 at 12:13
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    Perfective words don't have the present tense, their forms that look like present are actually future tense: Imperfective: пишу 'I write / I'm writing' - Present, Perfective: напишу 'I'll write, I'm going to write, I will have written' - Future. – Yellow Sky Sep 29 '15 at 12:50
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This is not unique to the Russian language. Frequently, the past tense is used to create context while the present tense is used to relate events. For example, an English speaker may say:

The craziest thing happened on my way to work yesterday! This guy comes up to me and says...

The first sentence is context, and the second sentence is the main event.

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  • Should u use "A craziest"? – Anixx Sep 30 '15 at 1:43
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So you see, it's always the transition from past to present and conditional future. That makes sense if you imagine that the story is happening now. This brings more reality and hence suspence. Now, what happened in the past is exposition, it's not very important for our narrative.

Sometimes this flow of the present tense can be interspersed with some past to mark a time gap. Your second example skips to the next exposition: he squeezed my hand. So what is my reaction now?

All of this is very intuitive for native speakers. Creative writing allows many forms. Take imperative mood in Russian (my favorite example). All of these are correct:

  • Упасть, отжаться!
  • Упал, отжался!
  • Упади, отожмись!

But I guess you only learn the third variant as correct imperative (first two are not so polite).

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