Historical present

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In linguistics and rhetoric, the historical present (also called dramatic present or narrative 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[edit]

In an excerpt from Dickens' David Copperfield, we can see that the shift from the past tense to the historical present gives a sense of immediacy, as of a recurring vision:

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)

Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale is entirely written in the historical present tense.

In describing fiction[edit]

Summaries of the narratives (plots) of works of fiction are conventionally presented using the present tense rather than the past tense. At any particular point of the story, as it unfolds, there is a now, and hence a past and a future, so whether some event mentioned in the story is past, present, or, future changes as the story progresses; the entire plot description is presented as if the story's now is a continuous present. Thus, in summarizing the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, one may write:

"Manette is obsessed with making shoes, a trade he learned while in prison."

Further reading[edit]

  • *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 0-521-43146-8
  • *Leech, G. N. (1971). Meaning and the English Verb, London: Longman. . ISBN 0-582-52214-5