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to hate the past being described in the present tense?

(21 Posts)
Getabloominmoveon Wed 19-Oct-16 11:47:43

The current trend for describing historical events in the present tense annoys me no end, e.g. ' Raleigh arrives there in 1585, and immediately takes control' , 'Churchill walks into the meeting, lights his cigar and asks'

I imagine historians are trying to make past events feel more immediate or dramatic, but it jars with me, and I wonder what's wrong with describing the past in the past tense?

iPost Wed 19-Oct-16 11:51:04

The Historical Present.

Function- Dramatic effect

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Wed 19-Oct-16 11:55:54

Oh lord, I'm a bugger for this, even when just writing for myself.

The thing is, for me it IS immediate. I'm reading a military record, say, and someone's career is unfolding in front of me. I don't know what happens next till I read on.

So I'm immersed in that point of their life - not looking back on it with historical perspective. It isn't "in the past" for me.

Velvetdarkness Wed 19-Oct-16 12:03:26

I hate this too. And newspaper captions: the Prime Minister arrives at Wherever yesterday.
What is wrong with arriving? Argh!

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Wed 19-Oct-16 12:06:08

And in fact, sometimes I feel uneasy using the past tense. It feels like I'm trying to put some comfortable distance between myself and the situation of the person I'm researching.

At the moment I'm reading a battalion war diary during the 1918 Spring Offensive on the Western Front. It's filled in hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute.

There is no looking back and taking stock for many of the people I'm reading about: they'll be dead by the end of the page. It feels wrong to approach that writing with a "benefit of hindsight" head on.

wasonthelist Wed 19-Oct-16 12:27:19

YES YES YES - but I wish to add that special new tense the Police have invented for no good reason.

"What's happened is, the car has come along the road and then this van hasn't seen him and he's pulled across in front, and then they've collided"

arrrggggggggh why?

corythatwas Wed 19-Oct-16 12:31:06

Current trend? It's a perfectly normal way of writing in Greek and Roman history, in fact in any traditional historical writing. As pp have said, it's for dramatic effect, to signify that things are beginning to move.

echt Wed 19-Oct-16 12:34:01

Current trend? It's a perfectly normal way of writing in Greek and Roman history, in fact in any traditional historical writing. As pp have said, it's for dramatic effect, to signify that things are beginning to move.

No, it was normal then and annoying now.

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Wed 19-Oct-16 12:51:27

cory, reassuring to learn I'm in good company! grin

Getabloominmoveon Wed 19-Oct-16 12:52:01

Ok, so it's not a new trend - perhaps I am just more aware of it. But it's everywhere, and seems like it's not acceptable for e.g. historians or
experts to use the past tense anymore, whereas I would use it in normal conversation to describe past events. I understand why it's effective for dramatic or immediacy effects, but used constantly sounds a bit affected to me.

Flingmoo Wed 19-Oct-16 12:55:04

I read a lovely book called The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England. You'd hate it as the whole thing is in present tense - the reader is addressed as if they are a traveller or tourist who has gone back to the Middle Ages to explore what life was like. It's written almost like a travel guide. I love it. I find present tense helps me to immerse myself in the events and scenery.

ShaunPaul Wed 19-Oct-16 12:55:50

OP, I think I love you a little bit.

This drives me fucking nuts.

There was a woman on Woman's Hour a couple of weeks ago talking about fashion history when they discussed wardrobe staples- Amber someone. Anyway, she was a fucking nightmare for it. She was fascinating to listen to but I had to keep fastforwarding through her bits because the way she spoke with her fucked up past/present tense drove me insane.

ShaunPaul Wed 19-Oct-16 12:57:48

Mamushka I've read that it's great! But the use of the present tense is don deliberately isn't it in that instance? Because you're supposed to pretend you are actually there, that it's actually the present. It didn't annoy me in that book at all.

ZuleikaDobson Wed 19-Oct-16 13:03:58

I agree, I hate it. It's particularly ridiculous when they mix it up, e.g. "Henry VIII was anxious to marry Ann Boleyn but he knows the Pope won't agree to a divorce." Whenever I hear anyone talking like that I miss the sense of it because I'm too busy correcting the tenses mentally.

I suspect that it's something that historians fondly imagine gives dramatic effect but they have never actually checked it or thought it through. No-one seriously thinks that if they narrated a history programme solely in the past tense anyone would complain, do they?

FaFoutis Wed 19-Oct-16 13:18:12

I'm a historian and I would never talk about the past like this, nor can I stand to listen to anyone else doing it. Radio 4 goes off the moment some poor historian is forced to talk like this (and they often slip up as you say Shaun).

Talking directly about sources is a different matter, that's often done in the present tense, but that just aims to differentiate these from the interpretation (and hindsight).

The difference is this:
It's 1850, Mrs Bloggs goes to the shops.

Mrs Bloggs states in her diary entry for 1850 that she "went to the shops".

MaximumVolume Wed 19-Oct-16 13:22:02

I'm not a fan, particularly on the radio. Nothing like getting in the car and switching R4 on to hear a phrase like "...war between America and Russia is hanging in the balance" to get you going, and then realising they're talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis not current events!

DameDiazepamTheDramaQueen Wed 19-Oct-16 13:23:32

Thank God, I'm not the only one!

biggles50 Wed 19-Oct-16 13:23:39

Oh yes I find it annoying too. "Henry VIII is raging, so he decides to...."

bigkidsdidit Wed 19-Oct-16 13:30:16

Wasonthelist that's the football tense grin

As heard on match of be day : 'the ball's come in and I've headed it over'

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Wed 19-Oct-16 13:36:39

Yes yes, agree that done badly and with mixed up tenses, it's just dreadful. And it's very difficult not to do it badly.

I tend to go back over my writing and weed out the present tenses that have slipped in naturally (because that's how I'm thinking), or at the very least make a positive decision to write in the present for this piece, and make it consistent.

A disorienting mish-mash serves no one.

MaximumVolume Wed 19-Oct-16 14:04:13

I thought you'd enjoy this article: tenses all over the place!

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