Historical present

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In linguistics and rhetoric, the historic present or 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). Historic present is the form recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary, whereas historical present is the form in Merriam Webster.

Literary critics and grammarians have said that the historic 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:

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