Definitions

historical-present

Historical present

In linguistics and rhetoric, the historical present refers to the employment of the present tense when narrating past events. Besides its use in writing about history, especially in historical chronicles (listing a series of events), it is used in fiction, for 'hot news' (as in headlines), and in everyday conversation (Huddleston & Pullum 2002: 129-131). In conversation, it is particularly common with 'verbs of communication' such as tell, write, and say (and in colloquial uses, go) (Leech 2002: 7).

Literary critics and grammarians have said that the historical present has the effect of making past events more vivid. More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions, not by making an event present, but by marking segments of a narrative, foregrounding events (that is, signalling that one event is particularly important, relevant to others) and marking a shift to evaluation (Brinton 1992: 221).

Examples

Following is an excerpt from Dickens' David Copperfield, in which we can see the shift from the past tense to the historical present:

If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room, and comes to speak to me.

'And how is Master David?' he says, kindly.

I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his. (Chapter IX)

Examples of its use by historians will often be found in the weekly BBC programme with Melvyn Bragg, In Our Time, and some listeners have complained about its use as confusing or affected:

I don't understand why historians on In Our Time speak of past events in what sounds to me like a form of the present tense, for example: "Aristotle thinks that reason isn't located in space and time". Does anyone else find this annoying ? What's wrong with "Aristotle thought that reason wasn't located in space and time" ? What am I missing ? They all do it every week.

References

  • *Brinton, L. J. (1992). "The historical present in Charlotte Bronte's novels: Some discourse functions." Style 26(2): 221-244.
  • *Huddleston, R. and G. K. Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521431468
  • *Leech, G. N. (1971). Meaning and the English Verb, London: Longman. . ISBN 0-582-52214-5
  • "In Our Time - Have Your Say" BBC - Radio 4. Accessed May 6, 2008.

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