As a temporal adverb*, now is easy enough to define: at the present moment. However, as we'll see below, there are actually two possible interpretations of this meaning, which can both be expressed by now

at the present moment [NON-CONTRASTING NOW]

now as opposed to before [CONTRASTING NOW]

First, let's look at ways in which we can refer to the present moment without drawing a contrast with the past. 


*The reason for contrasting its temporal use, is that now as a particle has several other meanings and uses. As a discourse marker, it expresses various contextual and emotive nuances which you can read about here. However, in this page, we're only looking at it uses as a temporal adverb meaning at this moment.



1 The meaning at the present moment is built into present verb forms and situations — especially progressive phrases in -ing. Here, it usually isn't necessary to use any adverb referring to the present — in fact, using one may actually sound unnatural, or may sound like your contrasting now with before when you're not.

In this exchange, there's no need to use now with doing, sitting or working, because these progressive forms already refer to something happening in the present.This applies even without a progressive verb. For instance, if Alex asked Where are you?, she could just answer I'm in the garden without now because It's obvious that both the question and the answer refer to the present moment.However, if Alex wants to emphasize the present moment in his question for whatever reason, he could add right now to the end of the question, completely unstressedWhere áre you _rịght _nọw? 

Alex calls his wife from work in the middle of the day to see how she's doing.


Alex: Hey. I just called to see what you're up to. What are you doing?

Nina: I'm sitting in the garden reading a book. Are you working?

In this snippet, the progressive suggests that it's a new city and a new job for Karen. 

Note, however, that using the progressive with verbs that are normally used in the plain present to refer to general life activities like work and live, has a somewhat contrasting effect; it conveys a meaning of doing these things somewhere new and possibly only temporarily.

Dean: What's Karen doing for work these days?

Stan: She's living in New York and working for a Russian import company. She translates contracts and correspondence and stuff like that. 

2 When we need to refer to the present moment for emphasis or clarification, we normally do this with one of three adverbial expressions that don't contrast with the past: right now, at the moment and as we speak.

In this snippet, the speakers use all three forms. The whole discussion is about the present moment.As you can see, right now is always non-contrasting, which isn't always the case with plain now. Here, Hugh stresses both words because of the urgency of his situation. But they can be totally unstressed with no change in meaning.

Hugh's car broke down on the way to work and he calls his wife.


Hugh: Hey, what are you doing right now? My car broke down and I need you to pick me up.

Beth: Ugh, I'm taking the children to school at the moment. I'm pulling into the parking lot as we speak. Text me your location — I'll be there as soon as I can.

3 Now can be used to refer to the present moment without contrasting it with the past at the end of an utterance. In this usage, it's stressed and pronounced with a falling intonation.

Stressed final now is also used when you inform someone that an action they suggested or requested is actually being done as you speak. This use of now is very common when responding immediately to instructions, to confirm that you've already gone into action. In this context, we can also use right nów or as we spéak.

Alex: Hey Nat, I've been called away to cover that earthquake. Can you call your brother and have him pick the kids up from school?

Natasha: I'm texting him now. Please be careful.

Below we'll see that unstressed now at the end of a statement has a contrasting effect. However, that contrast is lost when now is stressed, in which case it refers to something happening at this very minute. 

Alex: Hey babe, did you hear?

Natasha: This is horrible! Those poor people. The president's supposed to address the nation soon.

Alex: He's doing it now. Turn on the tv.



4 In (1) we saw that present progressive contexts can refer to the present time without using the adverb now or any other phrase referring to the present moment.

In (1) above, we mentioned that using now with the progressive is unnecessary and may sound unnatural because we tend to only use it when we want to contrast what's happening now with something that was happening before, as in this example. Here, now sounds quite natural because it contrasts washing the dog before with what Nina's doing now — reading a book. 

Alex calls his wife from work in the middle of the day to see how she's doing.


Alex: Hey. I just called to see what you're up to. What are you doing?

Nina: I just finished washing the dog. Now, I'm sitting in the garden, reading a book.

In its contrasting role, now can be used at the beginning of a sentence with primary stress, in front of the main verb with secondary stress, or at the end of the sentence, where it's unstressed.Of these three, the most emphatic in terms of contrast is stressed now at the beginning of the statement. The least emphatic is unstressed now at the end of the statement. In fact, it straddles the line between contrasting and non-contrasting, depending on the context, and can actually be used to express both — especially when this contrast isn't important. However, this changes when it's stressed in that position, which refers exclusively to the present moment, and quite emphatically so, as we see in (3) above.

Nów I'm in the gàrden, reading a bóok.

I'm nòw in the gàrden, reading a bóok.

I'm in the gàrden, reading a bóok now.

5 Contrasting now before the main verb

When contrasting now is used directly in front of the main verb, it tends to have an more personal feel — it signals an exciting change in a situation or in someone's life, usually brought about by something that happened that turned things around.In this example, Sarah's news of Dougie's turnaround wouldn't be half as enthusiastic or emotive if now were anywhere but in front of the main verb. That's because, with this syntax, there's an underlying nuance of <look how things have changed!>, and in this case, it expresses some pride on the part of the mother. But if things had not gone well for Dougie, this now could be used before a verb that expresses a change for the worse with sadness, regret, etc.Note that this now isn't commonly used in front of the verb to be, but after it: He's now living in Paris, ...

Old friends, Anne and Sara are catching up after not seeing each other for a while.


Anne: How's Dougie doing? The last I heard, he was having trouble at school.

Sarah: Yeah, he had fallen in with the wrong crowd and his grades suffered. But last summer, things really changed for him. He decided he wanted to really concentrate on his violin, so we found him an exchange program in Paris and he's been there for a year. He now speaks French, has earned a music scholarship, and even has a girlfriend who's a violinist, too!

6 Contrasting now at the end of a statement

Contrasting now at the end of a statement can also be stressed when the speaker is being smug or sarcastic about a situation which has come about as they predicted or warned. Also note that it has a special intonation — a sing-song quality.

Natasha and Becky talk about a former co-worker 


Natasha: Are you still friendly with that nice girl from Spain you used to work with?

Becky: Clara. Yes. So, when she and I worked together, this girl Robin started working in the office too. Clara and Robin became quite friendly, but I always thought there was something off about Robin. Then I realized she was actually after Clara's job. I warned Clara, but she didn't believe me, and sure enough, Robin ended up with her job. She believes me now!

To see other uses of now that don't relate to time, click here