Ben Yagoda Gets Sick of the Historical Present

The historical present is used in some Los Angeles signage

The historical present is used in some Los Angeles signage

Enough already with the historical present. The go-to tense for history lecturers and NPR guests has worn out its welcome and is starting to come off as a twitchy reflex, as annoying as starting sentences with So or ending them with right?

You probably know what I mean by historical present (HP), but in case you don’t, here are some recent examples:
• “Alonzo King is arrested for assault and they swab his cheek as part of the arrest process. It pops up in a database.” (The New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, talking on NPR’s On the Media about a recent Supreme Court case)

• “Four months after the opening gala, the company that built PH Towers sues Westgate for unpaid bills. David Siegel is forced to lay off thousands of employees.” (Voice-over narration to the documentary film The Queen of Versailles.)

• “At some point L. Ron Hubbard takes to the sea and he moves the main people in Scientology to the sea with him. … So at some point he decides to come back to land. He needs a safe place to be and a place where Scientology can flourish and he chooses Clearwater, Florida. Why Clearwater?” (Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewing Lawrence Wright about his Scientology book Going Clear.)

• “ … there’s a vacancy on the Supreme Court after Lincoln’s won that second nomination. And everyone comes and suggests various people (Doris Kearns Goodwin, interviewed on NPR)

Basically, the HP consists of using the present tense to describe stuff that already happened. Where did it come from, why did it become so popular, and why is it so annoying? Before getting to those questions, I should say a word about the use of the present tense in literature.

As I related in an essay some years ago, in the 19th century, first Charlotte Bronte and then Charles Dickens began experimenting with the present tense, and later novelists, like Joyce Cary in The Horse’s Mouth, made use of it from time to time. It’s a common move as well in modern poetry (“After counting all the sheep in the world/I enumerate the wildebeests … ”—Billy Collins) and even popular songwriting (Eleanor Rigby sits, not sat, in the church).

Meanwhile, the present had become the go-to tense for stage direction in play scripts, screenplays, and treatments. (“Pegeen, a wild-looking but fine girl, of about 20, is writing at table. She is dressed in the usual peasant dress.”) That convention makes sense. The past clearly wouldn’t work, much less the future. The only other possibility would be the imperative—they’re called stage directions, after all—but that would be kind of weird. “Han Solo, pick up the light saber. … ” Significantly, John Updike’s original subtitle for his 1959 present-tense novel, Rabbit, Run, was “A Screenplay.” Updike’s technique filtered to the influential 1970s and 80s short-story writers Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver, and for a while it was more unusual to find an American story in the past tense than in the present. Many British fiction writers, including Hilary Mantel and Ian McEwan, have since embraced it as well, not without controversy.

There are all sorts of reasons—of aesthetics, philosophy, and fashion—for those writers’ choice. But, getting back to the question at hand, it’s a bit different when history writers use the HP. One possible influence on the current trend may be the longstanding literary critical convention of referring to the artistic (but not biographical) acts of great writers (but, weirdly, not not-great writers) in the present tense, which has compelled people writing English papers to make some rather fine distinctions. Thus, “Shakespeare uses a great deal of fire imagery”: standard operating procedure. “Shakespeare moves to London in 1593”: HP. The tense-protocol of newspaper headlines is subtle as well. They are customarily in the present, unless they describe a past event that has only now been discovered: LINCOLN HAD ASBERGER’S, STUDIES FIND.

On the old radio and newsreel series The March of Time, and the later TV series You Are There, the present tense gave the narration immediacy and, less happily, a portentous quality that ages very poorly. The problem is clearest when the voice-over veers from the main events being described to subsequent ones and is forced into such awkward constructions as “In six months, he would be dead.” Nevertheless, the HP still tempts documentary makers, as seen in The Queen of Versailles and, probably, the syntax you will hear if you turn on the History Channel right now.

Another track of the HP might be called the demotic. We all use it when trying to spice up an anecdote: “Then he picks it up and actually eats the thing!” It’s also used in jokes (“A guy walks into a bar…”), sports announcing (“He shoots … he scores!), and in the recounting of dreams. One episode of Lexicon Valley—an excellent podcast series about language put out by the NPR series On the Media—took up the historical present. Hosts Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo listened to a remarkable clip from Seinfeld where Kramer goes back and forth between the HP and the past tense several times in recounting his tale of trying to bring a severed toe to the hospital. (Garfield, clearly a man after my own heart, calls the HP “somewhere between a tic and an affectation.” This is definitely understandable, considering the number of times he’s had to listen to it.)

Kramer realized, as did Liptak, and Goodwin, that the HP can goose a narrative, grab a listener’s attention with the unexpected grammar, make what we’re describing seem more immediate (like a movie). But I would wager my Lingua Franca check that neither of those two admirable writers ever venture into the HP in their writing. They realize that, in discussing the past, it lacks the authority, the range, the depth, and the power of the past tense.

They realize that it’s essentially a novelty item. It’s tacky. Give it a rest.

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