Verbal Energy

Tense time: historically present, timelessly now

Why do talking heads in the media keep using the present tense?

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"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Those lines from Faulkner may be a good point at which to take up a trend irking many of us media consumers: talking heads who recount history in the present tense.

A reader reports her "increasing wonder and some irritation" at this phenomenon.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

One popular art and antiques program, she notes, regularly features experts saying such things as, "Joe Blow started his career in New York but then goes to Utah, where he sets up a studio and gathers other artists to join him."

And even presidential historians say things like, "After returning to Monticello, Jefferson focuses on increasing the productivity of the land...."

This isn't always confined to historic, or historical, figures either. In a recent radio interview, funk musician "Bootsy" Collins described how, as a teen, he started performing with James Brown, "the godfather of soul."

"How old are you now?" the host asked. "You're like 16, 17?"

Harrumph. It may be that Mr. Collins "was" 16 or 17 when he began to play with Brown, but in actual real time, the answer to the interviewer's question should have been that he is "now 61."

"Enough already with the historical present," cries Ben Yagoda at the "Lingua Franca" blog. "The go-to tense for history lecturers and NPR guests has worn out its welcome and is starting to come off as a twitchy reflex, as annoying as starting sentences with 'So' or ending them with 'right?' "

I would have guessed that the story of Joe Blow the artist is "worse" than the Thomas Jefferson reference, because the latter is at least consistently present tense.

Ah, but not so fast. Mr. Yagoda points to a "Lexicon Valley" podcast by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo in which they discuss the historical present, or dramatic present, as it is also known. They illuminated the issue with a snippet from a "Seinfeld" episode.

Mr. Vuolo pointed out that narrators who use the "dramatic present" typically frame their stories with a past-tense "setup": "Let me tell you what happened when ..." But they switch into the present for the climactic point, and then tend to revert to the past tense to tie up the loose ends.

In the "Seinfeld" bit, Kramer relates a fantastical tale in which he is trying to deliver an urgent package – by bus! – when another passenger pulls out a gun. Kramer decks the guy, and ends up taking the wheel of the bus after the driver passes out "because of all the commotion." But even then, Kramer doesn't make very good time, because he still makes all the stops along the route. "People kept ringing the bell!" Kramer explains to the incredulous Jerry and George – slipping neatly back into the past tense as he does so.

You can have a listen yourself: http://bit.ly/lexiconvalleySeinfeld (it's about 12 minutes in). Which brings us to another aspect of the "historical present."

There's always something new in this world of the 24-hour news cycle. "This just in" pops up on the websites of monthly magazines, as it used to pop out of the mouths of radio news readers. But it's not just that. It's that so much material is so endlessly available, so endlessly now – just like the "Seinfeld" clip. And note how I told the story above in the present.

After all, as Faulkner would say, it isn't really past.

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