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historical present

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historical present

A joke told in the historical present tense

Definition:

The use of a verb phrase in the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. In narratives, the historical present may be used to create an effect of immediacy.

In rhetoric, the use of the present tense to report on events from the past is called translatio temporum ("transfer of times"). "The term translatio is particularly interesting," notes Heinrich Plett, "because it is also the Latin word for metaphor. It clearly shows that the historical present only exists as an intended tropical deviation of the past tense" (Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture, 2004).

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "It is a bright summer day in 1947. My father, a fat, funny man with beautiful eyes and a subversive wit, is trying to decide which of his eight children he will take with him to the county fair. My mother, of course, will not go. She is knocked out from getting most of us ready: I hold my neck stiff against the pressure of her knuckles as she hastily completes the braiding and the beribboning of my hair. . . ."
    (Alice Walker, "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self." In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Brace, 1983)


  • "There is a famous story of President Abraham Lincoln, taking a vote in a cabinet meeting on whether to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. All his cabinet secretaries vote nay, whereupon Lincoln raises his right hand and declares: 'The ayes have it.'"
    (Peter W. Rodman, Presidential Command. Vintage, 2010)


  • "Verbs in the 'historic present' describe something that happened in the past. The present tense is used because the facts are listed as a summary, and the present tense provides a sense of urgency. This historic present tense is also found in news bulletins. The announcer may say at the start, 'Fire hits a city centre building, the government defends the new minister, and in football City United lose.'"
    ("Language Notes," BBC World Service)


  • "Well Mr. Churchill says, Mr. Churchill says
    We gotta fight the bloody battle to the very end."
    (Ray Davies, "Mr. Churchill Says," by the Kinks, 1969)


  • "If you introduce things which are past as present and now taking place, you will make your story no longer a narration but an actuality."
    (Longinus, On the Sublime. Quoted by Chris Anderson in Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction. Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1987)


  • An Example of the Historical Present in an Essay
    "I’m nine years old, in bed, in the dark. The detail in the room is perfectly clear. I am lying on my back. I have a greeny-gold quilted eiderdown covering me. I have just calculated that I will be 50 years old in 1997. ‘Fifty’ and ‘1997’ don’t mean a thing to me, aside from being an answer to an arithmetic question I set myself. I try it differently. ‘I will be 50 in 1997.’ 1997 doesn’t matter. ‘I will be 50.’ The statement is absurd. I am nine. ‘I will be ten’ makes sense. ‘I will be 13’ has a dreamlike maturity about it. ‘I will be 50’ is simply a paraphrase for another senseless statement I make to myself at night: ‘I will be dead one day.’ ‘One day I won’t be.’ I have a great determination to feel the sentence as a reality. But it always escapes me. ‘I will be dead’ comes with a picture of a dead body on a bed. But it’s mine, a nine-year-old body. When I make it old, it becomes someone else. I can’t imagine myself dead. I can’t imagine myself dying. Either the effort or the failure to do so makes me feel panicky. . . .

    "I was 50 in the summer of 1997 and for the past year I have been recalling the nine-year-old who tried to imagine me. I mean, I have been recalling her trying to imagine me, at that moment, in bed, in the dark, some 41 years ago. . . ."
    (Jenny Diski, "Diary." London Review of Books, October 15, 1998. Rpt. under the title "At Fifty" in The Art of the Essay: The Best of 1999, ed. by Phillip Lopate. Anchor Books, 1999)


  • The "You-Are-There Illusion"
    "When the reference point of the narration is not the present moment but some point in the past, we have the 'historical present,' in which a writer tries to parachute the reader into the midst of an unfolding story (Genevieve lies awake in bed. A floorboard creaks . . .). The historical present is also often used in the setup of a joke, as in A guy walks into a bar with a duck on his head . . . Though the you-are-there illusion forced by the historical present can be an effective narrative device, it can also feel manipulative. Recently a Canadian columnist complained about a CBC Radio news program that seemed to him to overuse the present tense, as in 'UN forces open fire on protesters.' The director explained to him that the show is supposed to sound 'less analytic, less reflective' and 'more dynamic, more hot' than the flagship nightly news show."
    (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. Viking, 2007)


  • Warning
    "Avoid the use of the historical present unless the narrative is sufficiently vivid to make the use spontaneous. The historical present is one of the boldest of figures and, as is the case with all figures, its overuse makes a style cheap and ridiculous."
    (James Finch Royster and Stith Thompson, Guide to Composition. Scott, Foresman, 1919)


  • Shakespeare's Use of the Historical Present in Hamlet
    "He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
    Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
    And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
    He falls to such perusal of my face
    As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
    At last, a little shaking of mine arm
    And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
    He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
    As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
    And end his being: that done, he lets me go . . .."
    (Ophelia in Act One, scene 1 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Also Known As: historic present, dramatic present
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