Author Topic: When can history be told in the present tense?  (Read 6322 times)

Joe Carillo

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When can history be told in the present tense?
« on: February 18, 2021, 05:33:58 AM »
In August last year a Forum member asked me if history can be narrated in the present tense. I replied that professional historians write history in the past tense as a matter of course, for historical accounts would sound so contrived and tacky if told in the present tense on a sustained basis.

Imagine how confusing it would be to listen to Italian history narrated in the present tense from start to finish this way: “Machiavelli falls out of favor when the Medici princes return to power and he is imprisoned on suspicion of crimes against the state…”

So if at all, a respectable historian resists the temptation to use the historical present for novelty’s sake, sometimes taking recourse to it on TV only to summarize what he or she has already narrated in the past tense.

                          IMAGE CREDIT: SLIDEPLAYER.COM
 
My point in all of this is that we should be more precise and circumspect in using the present tense in narrative prose.  

We use the simple present tense for the here and now: “I work as a translator for a publishing company.” “She sees something sinister in this.” And when we want to express an ongoing action that’s happening right now, we take recourse to the present progressive tense: “She is seeing something moving at the edge of the clearing.” Of course, we can also use the simple present tense to express an often-repeated action or permanent condition: “She takes a break at precisely 10:00 a.m.” “He suffers from total deafness in the right ear.”

In English, though, we must keep in mind that the present tense has two more special forms that don’t necessarily deal with the immediate present. They are the historical present, and the rhetorical present of literature, scientific principles, and general truths.

The historical present. This form recounts past events in the present tense to make them more vivid and to create a stronger sense of immediacy. It is often used in narratives, first-person accounts, and dialogue.

Feel the immediacy of this passage from Alphonse Daudet’s short-story, “A Game of Billiards”: “The game is fascinating. The balls roll, graze, pass; they rebound. Every moment the play grows more interesting. A flash of light is seen in the sky, and the report of a cannon is heard. A heavy rumbling sound shakes the windows…

Rhetorical present of literature, scientific principles, and general truths. As a rule, English uses the present tense when the discussion is about literature, scientific principles, and general truths.

Take this passage reviewing Filipino novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez’s novel, The Bamboo Dancers: “In the first chapter, the first-person narrator begins his story by recounting that early  summer he was in New York. He has a room all to himself in a place called Fairfield House. He is through with what he calls his ‘American year,’ having just completed work at the Harrington School of Fine Arts...”

Then take this back-cover blurb for John Fowles’ 1963 novel, The Collector: “The setting is a lonely cottage in the English countryside. The characters are a brutal, tormented man and the beautiful, aristocratic young woman whom he has taken captive. The story is the struggle of two wills, two ways of being, two paths of desire…”

In English grammar, scientific principles and general truths are stated in the present tense unless they have been disproven: “Newton’s First Law of Motion holds that a body continues in its state of motion unless compelled by a force to act otherwise.”

On the other hand, disproven principles proven to be false must be stated in the past tense: “The phlogiston theory held that an elementary principle, called phlogiston by its proponent, G. H. Stahl, was lost from substances when they burned.” (This theory has been displaced by Antoine Lavoisier’s oxygen theory.)  

(Next: Avoiding improper uses of the conjunction “as”)        February 25, 2021          

This essay, 2,033rd of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the February 18, 2021 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2021 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this article online in The Manila Times:
“When can history be told in the present tense?”

To listen to the audio version of this article, click the encircled double triangle logo in its online posting in The Manila Times.
« Last Edit: February 18, 2021, 06:17:29 AM by Joe Carillo »

Miss Mae

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Re: When can history be told in the present tense?
« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2021, 11:00:01 AM »
Thank you for your explanation, Sir. I thought I should just use the present tense, whatever the case may be.

Anyway, shouldn't "disproven" be deleted in this last sentence of yours?

On the other hand, disproven principles proven to be false must be stated in the past tense: “The phlogiston theory held that an elementary principle, called phlogiston by its proponent, G. H. Stahl, was lost from substances when they burned.” (This theory has been displaced by Antoine Lavoisier’s oxygen theory.) 

Joe Carillo

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Re: When can history be told in the present tense?
« Reply #2 on: February 26, 2021, 11:40:31 AM »
You're right, Miss Mae, the adjective "disproven" in this statement of mine, "On the other hand, disproven principles proven to be false must be stated in the past tense" is a redundant modifier that shouldn't be there at all. That sentence should have read as "On the other hand, principles proven to be false must be stated in the past tense." You definitely have retained your keen eye for good grammar over the years and I'm grateful for that. My apologies to you and to all Forum readers for that superfluity.