ASK DOCTOR DOROTHY PASTENSE FULLSTOP

I thought I knew all the tenses, but somebody told me about the 'historic present'. It's not in your book, so what is it?

 

I know that in Typical Errors in English I talk about tenses that can be used to describe the future instead of the future tense (and one instance of talking about the future in the past), but it is unusual to think that any other tense could be used to talk about the past. But it does exist, and it is even controversial among some commentators. A UK radio programme, In Our Time, has academic experts using the tense, as in this example. The experts were talking about Saint Hildegarde of Bingen. and when asked where she got her learning, the response was: “The Benedictine monasteries play the most important role... they are very important politically but they are also just places of intellectual learning.” Dr Suerbaum from Somerville College, Oxford, gave this response. The time being talked about was the 12th century. Many say that this is history, it is over, and that when talking about completed events in the past, we should be using the past tense.

 

Actually, what those 'many' say is correct - when talking about completed events in the past, we should use the past tense. But the historic present mainly exists as a narrative technique - as used by Dr Suerbaum - and is usually associated with spoken English. By this, I mean that we use it when speaking to describe past events as if they are current. This can be viewed as more effective in getting a message across by presenting something as if it is happening in real time - usually in the minds of the imagination. This can also be used in other contexts to help in explaining or telling stories. Another example:  in the children's educational magazine DiscoveryBox, there is a picture strip telling the story of the Mona Lisa, and when it was stolen from the Louvre museum. In one frame where there is a scene of a police officer taking thumb prints of some people, the top panel reads:

 

The police are starting to use scientific methods. They take fingerprints of all the staff at the museum.

 

This narrative technique is used throughout the strip; the use of the historic present is useful to its readers as it gives them a present-time perspective of the events as they happened by seeing the pictures.

 

Another useful technique which some of us do is when writing entries in our diary. Although many of us do write about events that happened in the past tense, sometimes, to give a sense of real time experience, the historic present is used. Here's an example from Monty Python's Michael Palin, from his account on his experiences in Vladivostok (from his book Full Circle): 

 

I walk up the line to a small station enclosed by birch and willow trees. It's called Sanitornaya (Sanatorium). I sit myself down on one of the mustard-yellow wooden benches, with a breeze wafting gently off the Pacific, and wait for the 10.30 into Vladivostok.

 

The historic past is particularly popular with sports commentators when they are describing the events that happen in a television replay. For example, in football:

 

'The replay shows clearly that Smith plays the ball just as the defence runs back to try and get Jones into an offside position. But the referee's in a perfect position and so is the assistant. As the ball is played, all three players are in line with the defender, he's not offside, the goalkeeper's off his line and Jones can't fail to score. It's a clean finish, the goalie has no chance, and that is Jones's tenth goal of the season.'

 

Or in snooker: 'Watch this. He tries to play the black [ball] so he can get Higgins into an impossible position as he still needs a snooker, but he gets it wrong and hits the green and gives three points to his opponent and now there's an excellent chance for him to clear the table.'

 

With the snooker example, the commentators are watching a replay that has followed immediately after the action. They are looking again at the incident, describing the events - as we would see with them on TV as they are watching the recent action being repeated - in the present. In the final clause, however (and now there's an excellent chance for him to clear the table), the event - 'clearing the table' i.e. putting all the remaining balls in the pockets of the table without making a mistake - has not yet happened and so the present tense is now used to make a general fact on what is likely to happen in the next few seconds. 

 

With the football example, it is usually the analysts (people whose job it is to consider something using various methods to explain something) who are looking back on a piece of action, explaining to us, the viewer, what is happening in a 'real time' sense (as we are watching the repeated action at the same time as they are). In the final clause of the last sentence, we switch to normal present tense to explain a general fact - that Jones has now scored his tenth goal in total over the football season.

 

So as you can see, such a technique can be useful to your audience if it is being used for deliberate effect, but it has to be used in a context that your audience would understand. So when writing about describing historic events, unless you are sure of your intended audience (which I am sure Dr Suerbaum was), you should remain with the past tenses.

 

Finally, this last example is not a true example of the historic past, but more of a technique to get your attention in as a few words as possible, using more distinctive vocabulary and also using different grammar. This is known as Headline English, and the simple form of the verb is used to describe events that happened in the past: Pay talks fail. Woman quits after scandal. Bank rates fall again.

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