Monday, November 15, 2010

History in the present tense

Can anybody explain to me why so many people these days use the present tense to describe historical events? I was reminded of this phenomenon today by a particularly egregious example in the Washington Post Style section.  
Staff writer Manuel Roig-Franzia was interviewing David and Julie Eisenhower about their book on David’s grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first 11 paragraphs of the article ran along smoothly, but when Roig-Franzia began jumping between historical events, the book’s descriptions of those events, and his present-day encounter with the Eisenhowers, his tenses were soon leaping around all over the place.
Here’s one example. “[In] the first property that Ike owned after decades of living in either Army housing or The White House, the help refer to the 70-year-old former President as 'the General.'” Two different tenses in the same sentence.
Same again later when Roig-Franzia wrote that Mamie Eisenhower “is 64 when her husband leaves office” but “suffered from troubles with a rheumatic heart” and “was known as a vivacious hostess.”
In yet another jarring example, the text read, “David… often gets stuck with Granddad for terrifying car rides,” but the pull quote on the same page said, “David… often got stuck etc.” Make up your minds, people of the Post!
Other than his inability to be consistent, what I don’t understand is why Roig-Franzia felt the need to insert the present tense into his narrative at all when he was writing about events that occurred half a century ago!
This was a particularly badly written feature article, it’s true. But using the present tense to describe past events seems to be ubiquitous these days. Whenever The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer features a panel of eminent historians, they inevitably talk about how George Washington crosses the Delaware or Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. Why? What is wrong with the good old past tense? Is this a worthy but misguided attempt to make history seem more immediate and relevant to the present day? Maybe, but all it leads to – in my opinion – is confusion and the dumbing down of the English language.   
The marvelous children’s writer, Philip Pullman, protested against the over-use of the present tense in a recent article in the Guardian newspaper. Although he was talking about fiction writers, what he said could be applied just as aptly to journalists and historians.
“I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.”
All I can say is hear, hear. Anyone agree?


  1. I completely agree with you on this. Haphazard and incorrect usage of different tenses makes me crazy. And I don't understand why past events are not always put in the past tense. Not enough writers pay attention to these details. Above all else, they need to pick a tense and be consistent!

  2. Seems to me to be consistent with the general bad grammer and spelling that newspapers are rife with these days. Lack of professional proof readers and too much faith placed in spellchecker perhaps?

  3. I completely agree, but have noticed this mainly on television history programmes.Over the last few years it seems to have become almost compulsory. I have to say Neil Oliver, whom I believe you admire, is guilty of this in his History of Scotland

  4. Hi Jane! I do admire Neil Oliver and would forgive him almost anything for those flowing locks of his, but I'm disappointed to hear that he's jumped on the present tense bandwagon. Sigh...