Use of present tense in historical articles
There has been a recent trend to writing historical articles entirely in the present tense. This is not the "historical present tense", it is just wrong; but apart from bad grammar, there are also other reasons to regard it as an error, avoid it yourself, and correct it wherever you see it.
So far as I can see (although I haven't researched the origins in detail), this habit has been started by TV channels like the The History Channel and Discovery Channel trying to make historical presentations more immediate for younger viewers. To some extent they can get away with it, because usually it is in a narrative superimposed on a re-enactment, and the viewer is supposed to understand that events being described in present tense are contemporaneous with the historic scenes being re-enacted. In that sense, it is supposed to draw the viewer into those events.
In writing, however, it is almost always a bad mistake. Without the backdrop of the re-enactment dynamically indicating the flow of events, the loss of temporal information can become very confusing. This is especially so because the writer knows the context of events being described, and may simply assume it will be clear to the reader; to the reader, however, the ambiguity is obvious. Consider this example from New South Wales Police:
- 1862. In this year the New South Wales Police Force is created by the amalgamation of all existing forces into one organisation. The new force, brought about by the Police Regulation Act 1862, is controlled by Inspector General John McLerie. Sub-districts are created across the State, and these are controlled by Police Inspectors. Police are now being issued with .36 calibre Colt Navy revolvers. Until this time they had only been issued with various single-shot weapons, which were most unsatisfactory.
- 1871 ...
Did all the events under "1862" occur in 1862, or is this a summary of events from 1862 to 1871? What about the revolvers; while a person who understands the history of firearms can fill in the gaps, someone not knowledgeable in such matters could misinterpret this to mean that NSW police were issued single-shot weapons in 1862 and that those weapons have recently been replaced by Colt Navy revolvers. Similarly, what about John McLerie; the text seems to say that he is still Inspector General; that can't be right, he was first appointed 143 years ago, so by logical deduction we can remove the ambiguity. But what if the date had been 1962?
An additional problem is that continuous use of present tense makes it more difficult to express more complex ideas, such as third conditional mood:
- Jones would have left immediately had the supplies arrived.
Although this is a complex grammatical mood, a native speaker understands it easily. Trying to express the same thing in the present tense is impossible; the writer usually ends up with a mess that mixes up present tense, future conditionals and past tense.
- Ch.14 of "A Guide to Writing in History and Classics"
- Commandment IX of "Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing"
- Definition of "historical present" at Bartleby.com (Note: will generate a pop-up).
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