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History In The Present Tense? Finding A Style Balance

April 10, 2007

So I’ve finished a dissertation, published some articles (peer-reviewed and otherwise), written numerous entries for this weblog, and read several books and short pieces about writing, but I still face an acute dilemma when I sit down to write history. I can boil my problem down to one question: How much of an historical piece should I write in the “historical present?”

This issue has been in the back of my mind for a while, but it surfaced in force when I read the following at Gapers Block (a weblog for Chicago-area news): “Throughout A Chicago Tavern, [Rick] Kogan employs the present tense, even when describing events that occurred 30, 50 or 70 years ago. Although unusual, it gives the stories a strong feeling of immediacy and intimacy. As readers, we’re not just reading about the Billy Goat — we become one of its patrons, sitting alongside the bar, listening to these stories as if we were shoulder to shoulder with Rick, Mike, Sam or Billy.”

Of course my question, and the issue in general, above can be restated in quantitative terms. What percentage of one’s text should read in the past tense? 33%? 50%? 75%? At what point does the practice of writing in the present detract from the historical nature of the topic at hand? Or, does writing in the present EVER detract from historical composition?

I happen to be in the middle of a piece where I can incorporate some present-tense writing, but my dilemma is directed toward future compositions and revisions. I’ll be revising my dissertation into a book manuscript in the next few months, and would like to own a clear philosophy on the past/present-tense issue.

What’s your experience with this? Does your writing lean one way or the other? What’s the best – or worst – you’ve seen in either direction? – TL

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2 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Dear Tim,

    I found your post on the problem of historical present tense very timely. I am a consumer of TV documentaries in Australia (mostly originating in the UK) and I have noticed an explosion in the misuse of the historical present tense in narrations for these programs.

    I find it particularly irritating when the sense of the past context is completely lost – apparently deliberately. I understand that often the motive is to gain a sense of immediacy, but I fail to see how the loss the critical perspective which correct tenses give can be justified.

    One of my favourite broadcasters in Australia (Phillip Adams of Radio National, ABC) is a case in point. He constantly misuses the historical present tense during interviews. More than once I have heard him totally confuse an interviewee (usually someone whose first language is not English) by describing their exploits with “… you go …” in lieu of “… you went …” etc.

    I think this slavish adherence to this new fashion is idiotic in the so-called communication age – not to mention unforgivably rude.

    Surely the historical present tense has a legitimate and important role to play in our very rich language and should be retained – not diluted by constant misuse.

    I am sure you really don't need my advice, but I offer you my encouragement to stick to sensible use of tenses and for pity's sake don't apply some arbitrary percentage rule (yes, I am sure you were joking)!

    Joe Arthur, Melbourne Australia joseph@unimelb.edu.au

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  2. Dear Joe,

    Thanks for the comment. Although I posted this in April, it took 7 months to strike a chord! I'm surprised, but maybe that tells us something too.

    The percentages I threw out were partly a joke and partly not. I hoped to elicit a reply from someone who adheres to the present-tense philosophy. Of course it would be impossibly tedious to keep track of one's usage over the course of a 30 page article as much as a book.

    This might simply be a “field thing”—meaning literary folks writing about the past are more likely to use the present tense, but history professionals just don't. I don't know.

    To me, too much use of the present tense simply seems dishonest. As you noted, some of our critical perspective is lost. There seems to be value in at least attempting some objectivity, some distance.

    Your example from Mr. Adams is interesting. Considering that some of us have emotional memories (I'm painfully inadequate on this count), it would seem that the present tense would incite drama where it might not be wanted. What if you ask someone with a powerful emotional memory a question, say on the Holocaust, in the present tense? What if your phrasing causes her or him to lose track of the point at hand, due to anger or sadness? At this point you might have okay TV, but your historical program is off track because the person can't deliver the content you need.

    This is probably not the best example. Forums on historical events might serve better. What if your phrasing excites an emotion that turns a forum into an ad hominem event, a shouting match or melee?

    – TL

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