What Is the Historical Present (Verb Tense) in English?

Learn More Using Our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An example of a joke told in the historical present tense.

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In English grammar, the "historical present" is 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. Also called the "historic present, dramatic present, and narrative present."

In rhetoric, the use of the present tense to report on events from the past is called translatio temporum ("transfer of times"). "The term "translation" is particularly interesting," notes German English literature educator 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."

(Plett, Henrich. Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2004.)

Examples of the Historical Present Tense

"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. ..."

(Walker, Alice. "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 at 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.'"

(Rodman, Peter W. 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 center building, the government defends the new minister, and in football City, United lose.'"

("Language Notes," BBC World Service.)

"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 University Press, 1987.)

Essay Excerpt in the Historical Present Tense

"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 of 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. ..."

(Diski, Jenny. DiaryLondon Review of Books, October 15, 1998. Report title "At Fifty" in The Art of the Essay: The Best of 1999, edited by Phillip Lopate, Anchor Books, 1999.)

Memoir Excerpt in the Historical Present Tense

"My first conscious direct memory of anything outside myself is not of Duckmore and its estates but of the street. I am adventuring out of our front gate and into the great world beyond. It's a summer's day — perhaps this is the very first summer after we moved in when I'm not yet three. I walk along the pavement, and on into the endless distances of the street — past the gate of No. 4 — on and bravely on until I find myself in a strange new landscape with its own exotic flora, a mass of sunlit pink blossom on a tangled rambler rose hanging over a garden fence. I have got almost as far as the garden gate of No. 5. At this point, I somehow become aware of how far I am from home and abruptly lose all my taste for exploration. I turn and run back to No. 3."

(Frayn, Michael. My Father's Fortune: A Life, Metropolitan Books, 2010.)

How the Historical Present Forces 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."

(Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought, Viking, 2007.)

Avoid Overusing This Tense

"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."

(Royster, James Finch and Stith Thompson, Guide to Composition, Scott Foresman and Company, 1919.)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Historical Present (Verb Tense) in English?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/historical-present-verb-tense-1690928. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is the Historical Present (Verb Tense) in English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/historical-present-verb-tense-1690928 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Historical Present (Verb Tense) in English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/historical-present-verb-tense-1690928 (accessed May 29, 2023).