The Language Perfectionist: This Column May Make You “Tense”

Do you notice anything unusual about the following account, quoted from a major newspaper’s reader blog?

“Walking east through Rockefeller Center… about 10 years ago, I’m walking toward a man standing on the sidewalk near the curb. He wears a tweed jacket and a beret, wire-frame glasses. He looks familiar…. I’m thinking….”

Congratulations if you observed that even though the events described are a decade old, the narrator relates them in the present tense.

This is the sort of situation that provokes the question, “Isn’t there a name for that?” And there is. It’s called the historical present tense.

A familiar use of the historical present is when a quotation is preceded by the words “Shakespeare says….” instead of said, even though Mr. S. has been deceased for 400 years.

In casual conversation, people unconsciously employ the historical present to make the past event seem more immediate, vivid, or dramatic. But as the above excerpt demonstrates, doing so can sound slangy and lowbrow. In more formal writing and speaking, stick to the past tense when relating past events.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]