Author Topic: The historical, literary, and eternal present tense  (Read 8200 times)

Joe Carillo

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The historical, literary, and eternal present tense
« on: December 27, 2023, 08:33:59 AM »
We deal with the here and now by using the simple present tense: “I work as a translator for a publishing house.” “She sees something sinister in this.” And when we want to express an action that’s happening right now, we use the present progressive tense: “Can’t you see? I am working as hard as I can.” “She is seeing something moving at the ceiling.” Of course, we can also use the simple present to express an often-repeated action or permanent condition: “She takes a break at precisely 10:00 a.m.” “He is totally deaf in the right ear.”

The present tense is obviously the most basic the tenses can get, but we must be aware that in English, this tense takes three more special forms not necessarily dealing with the immediate present. They are the historical present, the literary present, and the “eternal present” of scientific principles and general truths.

The historical present. This form recounts past events in the present tense to make them more vivid and immediate. Often used in third-person and first-person narratives as well as in dialogue, the historical present is a story-telling technique designed to make audiences or readers imagine they are right at the scene of the unfolding action. 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. Everyone starts and casts an uneasy glance about. The Marshal alone remains unmoved.”

We all know, of course, that the historical present is common fare in magazine journalism. Take this lead passage from a 2004 Time magazine feature on the U.S. presidential campaign:

“In the bleak midwinter, Bill Clinton sits in the two-story garage out back, kneading memory into history. He scribbles his memoirs in longhand on legal pads, poring over notes and transcripts of his White House years. For the moment, the deadline is more pressing than raising money for India’s earthquake victims or promoting peace in Northern Ireland or touring Miami nightclubs with Julio Iglesias.”

The historical present is also the stuff of dialogue: “And so what does he say about your proposal?” “Well, he says it’s great and needs only a little fine-tuning. He’s particularly delighted by the high potential savings in production costs.” “So what does he tell you about implementation?” “He says it’s a ‘go’ for the second quarter.” “Amazing! That sounds like your idea really knocked him over! He usually first shoots proposals like that to the Corplan guys to see if they can tear it apart.”

The literary present. As a rule, the English language uses the simple present when discussing literature. This follows the academic concept that fiction exists in a timeless world that is best described in the present tense, particularly in discussions of theme, plot, or author’s intent. Take this passage about 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 this blurb for the British novelist John Fowles’ 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…”

The “eternal truth” present. This is the English-language convention for stating scientific principles and general truths in the present tense: “Newton’s First Law of Motion holds that a body continues in its state of motion unless compelled by a force to act otherwise.” “The meter is the base unit of length that is equal to the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second, or about 39.37 inches.” “The sum of the angles of a triangle is always equal to 180 degrees.” “The distance from Earth to Mars is at least 56 million kilometers.”

On the other hand, principles that have been proven 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.)  “The ancients believed that Earth was flat, and that one who stepped beyond its edge would fall into a bottomless abyss.” (We know now that Earth is spherical or, more accurately, spheroid due to the flattening at its poles.)

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
"The historical, literary, and 'eternal' present tense"

Next: "When simple indicative sentences won't do to drive home our point"   (January 4, 2024)

This essay, “The historical, literary, and eternal present tense,” first appeared as one of my earliest English-usage columns in The Manila Times and subsequently as Chapter 51 of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge (Manila Times Publishing Corp., copyright 2009).
« Last Edit: December 28, 2023, 09:02:06 AM by Joe Carillo »