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When is the Present Historic not the Past?

What is the present historic?

The present historic tense is when you talk about the past as though it were happening now. So, instead of using appropriate time expressions like ‘had’ and ‘was’ you use ‘is’ and ‘are’.

For example:

1. On Tuesday something strange happened. I was walking the dog when it started to rain. A frog landed on my head, crawled into my ear and ate my brain!

Using the present historic, I would write the above like this:

2. It’s Tuesday and something strange is happening. I’m walking the dog. It starts to rain. A frog lands on my head and crawls into my ear. It’s eating my brain!

But what distinguishes the present historic from the present tense?

The present historic relates events which we, the readers, know to be in the past and describes them as if they were just happening.

In both the examples above I have told you that these events took place in another time frame by beginning the sentence with a time reference: “On/It’s Tuesday…” Technically, this could be the future because I haven’t said what day it is right now, but most people will assume (correctly) that you aren’t a time traveller!

As an aside, I should note that you can use contextual assumptions like this to tighten up your prose and avoid the need to describe everything, all the time. Some writers can’t get past this: they tell you absolutely everything! I once read three pages of a book in which the author even noted when each character blinked! I thought I did well to get three pages in…

So, where were we?

Discussing tenses.

In sentence 1 I use the correct tense, making it easy for the reader to follow my meaning and understand what is going on. In sentence 2 I’m in danger of confusing the reader, but I’m taking this risk in order to reap the benefit of the dramatic effect I can create using the immediacy of the present tense: it creates tension and elevates a piece of reported information (sentence 1) into a piece of drama.

This, of course, is also why it’s a very popular tense among storytellers in pubs.

“I was walking along, right, and then this ‘ere frog lands on me ‘ead! And I says ‘Bloody ‘ell!’ but then it goes and, like, crawls darn me sideburn and into me bloody ear! I dunno what it wanted, like, but it it rattles around in there for a while and then crawls right out again!”

Anyway… the use of the present historic recently caused some controversy in the hallowed halls of Radio 4 when one of the station’s longest serving news broadcasters criticised one of the stations most eminent presenters for its constant and inappropriate use. You can hear all about it, plus a very enlightening and useful discussion of the whole subject in this recording of theĀ Feedback programme on BBC Radio 4 (time index 19:00).

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