History in the present tense is making me tense
August 1, 2017 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I've noticed that in the past few years, historians have moved from describing historical events in the past tense and have moved to the present tense (or past-present-perfect-whatever-it's-called tense). Example below!

So it seems like, up until a few years ago, historians would describe something like this:

He went to the White House every day. He went to the State Department every day. He sat in the park outside of the White House, waiting for Garfield, waiting for any chance to convince the president that he deserved this consulship to Paris.

But now more and more historians are using this tense

He's going to the White House every day. He's going to the State Department every day. He's sitting in the park outside of the White House, waiting for Garfield, waiting for any chance to convince the president that he deserves this consulship to Paris.

(From American Experience: Murder of A President)

Why the change? Would this be the kind of thing that just one person starts and others hear it and join in? Or was there some discussion somewhere that this is easier for people to understand?

Also, bonus points if you do know the proper way to describe the tense. I know I certainly don't!

And even more bonus points if you can tell me if this is somehow connected to my other pet peeve - the loss of action verbs. Signs that say things like, "This copier is broken. If you are needing to use one, go to the 2nd floor." Rather than, "If you need to use . . ."
posted by dawkins_7 to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you are falling into the recency illusion. People have used the present tense to describe past action for a long, long time. It's called the historical present.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:22 AM on August 1 [5 favorites]


I'm an archaeologist, not a historian, so I use the past tense. However, it's actually not uncommon among historians to use the present tense. This way of discussing past events is called the historical present and is actually something that goes back to Latin.

Personally, I'm not a fan of it and don't like my students to use it as it can be difficult to deploy, but that might be a style thing.
posted by thatminx at 11:23 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


I can't answer your main question, but this is known as the "present progressive" tense.
posted by 256 at 11:23 AM on August 1


"Historical Present"

There are lots of good examples if you do a Google search for "historical present," including articles by people annoyed by it and articles by people defending it.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:23 AM on August 1


Signs that say things like, "This copier is broken. If you are needing to use one, go to the 2nd floor." Rather than, "If you need to use . . ."

People are saying (present progressive tense) any old shit these days. We have no common tongue any more. Some kind of regionalism.


But now more and more historians are using this tense

He's going to the White House every day. He's going to the State Department every day. He's sitting in the park outside of the White House, waiting for Garfield, waiting for any chance to convince the president that he deserves this consulship to Paris.


This is just a matter of style, more exciting. The reader feels more part of an ongoing exciting story, rather than just reading about what somebody else did 100 years ago. I'm not a historian, but I'm quite sure they didn't need to have a meeting about this.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:24 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


It's the present progressive/present continuous in both cases. Using any present tense to report past actions, whether habitual or completed, is supposed to convey "immediacy." how you feel about that is your business. usually I think it works pretty well, but so would good writing, regardless of tense.

I think it's much more common in popular fiction than it used to be and bled into nonfiction, but I also think I'm imagining that. sometimes it's used for a casual tone (the 'so he says to me, he says' school of historiography.) there's also a particular cheap effect that's been around forever, where as you build up to a climactic event, you slip from past to present (the crowd was roaring. now he approaches the scaffold, now he raises his head in defiance for the last time, etc.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:26 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


Historians are often academics, and the general academic voice often involves writing about intellectual action in the present tense. For example, it's more typical to say that Hume "argues" than that he "argued," even though he's been dead for centuries. So it could be that what you're seeing in the manner that events are recounted is bleedthrough from the way in which thinking is recounted.
posted by Beardman at 11:32 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


If you'd like to go deeper into how the historical present showed up in English, here's a nifty 100-year-old article from Studies in Philology.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:36 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


My wife is a historian and she's written papers both in the past and present tense, in French and English. Writing in the present tense feels less natural in the beginning, but, more than often, its easier to write and more "economical". Also, when juggling with different timelines, the sequences of tenses (a least in French) can get awkward when the main narrative is already in past tense.
posted by elgilito at 12:02 PM on August 1


This way of discussing past events is called the historical present and is actually something that goes back to Latin.

Greek! You can see it in the Anabasis.

But you may also not be differentiating very clearly between pop and academic history. In my experience, at least in English, it's considerably more common for the former to use the present tense. If you look at the program you've linked to, the actual official description of the narrative is in the past tense. It's only in the program itself that it switches to the present, and the present tense is used in speech, not in text, which makes it infinitely more common, regardless of context.
posted by praemunire at 12:51 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]


Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution (1837) is largely written in the present tense. Carlyle justifies his use of present-tense narration on the grounds that it restores the element of fear to history:
For indeed it is a most lying thing that same Past Tense always: so beautiful, sad, almost Elysian-sacred, 'in the moonlight of Memory,' it seems; and seems only. For observe, always one most important element is surreptitiously (we not noticing it) withdrawn from the Past Time: the haggard element of Fear! Not there does Fear dwell, nor Uncertainty, nor Anxiety; but it dwells here; haunting us, tracking us; running like an accursed ground-discord through all the music-tones of our Existence;- making the Tense a mere Present one!
posted by verstegan at 1:18 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]


Present Historical is more often expressed with Present Simple form in my experience: Napoleon returns after all those years, and is quickly restored to power.

I think the influencing factor is storytelling - is the historian stating facts about the past (and using Past Simple or Present Historical), or telling a story about the past, in the same way that I would tell a story about last Friday ("So, I'm sitting in the car and this policeman walks up and says... and I'm thinking")? Stepping well outside my areas of knowledge, I think there's a consciousness among historians that "facts about the past" are often less cut-and-dried than one might think, and therefore there's a deliberate effort to show this as one possible story about how things went down - which would influence the choice of language. Someone more versed in history might be able to point to influential historians/books/series which helped the snowball grow.

The use of continuous over simple form can be used to convey a lower degree of formality in both of the examples you mention: maybe that's the common factor?
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 5:05 AM on August 2


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