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October 25th, 2006

Present tense for the past / I'm not snarky!

by Barbara Wallraff

Maryann Douglas, of Sedgwick, Maine, writes: “Have people forgotten the use of tenses, particularly the past tense? Whenever I see the use of present tense in referring to events that occurred in the past, I get upset. Periodicals such as Smithsonian magazine, television news programs and shows on the History Channel seem to do this consistently.”

Dear Maryann: I asked Carey Winfrey, the editor of Smithsonian, about when and why the “historical present” tense appears in his magazine. He told me: “Lots of writers like to use present tense, particularly when beginning an article with a telling or anecdotal scene, out of a belief that it adds immediacy. Sometimes we agree with them and go along with it. More often we change it to the past tense, or ask the writer to. Perhaps not often enough. But it’s a case-by-case thing with us.”

A number of authorities on language are suspicious of the historical present tense. But it “has a long history in English and is found in numerous other languages, both ancient and modern,” as the American Heritage Dictionary explains. An example of it that, I think, does a good job of making its purpose clear is the name of a TV series from the mid-1950s, in which Walter Cronkite hosted re-enactments of historic events: “You Are There.”
When the historical present tense helps bring readers or viewers into the action and hook them with that “you are there” feeling, I have nothing against it. It bothers me mainly when writers can’t seem to make up their mind whether they want to draw you in or keep you at an accurate historical distance, and switch sentence by sentence from the past tense to the present and back again.


A couple of weeks ago I asked you whether you agree with a particular reader of this column that I’m “sarcastic and snotty” to the people who write me. Well, the results are in -- and thank you all for the overwhelming vote of confidence you gave me. If a single reprimand came in, my e-mail program or the postal service has yet to deliver it.

I especially liked the letter that Anne Mackintosh, of Amherstview, Ontario, sent me. She wrote: “The problem is, I think, that we have too many people who feel compelled to take umbrage the instant anyone says no to them -- about anything. People seem to have zero tolerance for anything except ‘Yes, dear, that’s wonderful!’ Language and literacy are the most important basic skills of all. They’re the tools of business, education, finance, love and life. I tend to disregard information delivered by someone who uses the wrong word or structure. I’m an immigrant who once was the butt of classroom mockery over a linguistic blunder. I decided to learn the language better than the native-borns themselves. I do believe I did that. I enjoy your column immensely. Please do not change a thing. The English language needs you.”

Dear Anne: Many thanks for your thought-provoking analysis and for your kind words.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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