Say what you like about the past, but watch what you write

Say what you like about the past, but watch what you write

We are now well into the “silly season”. It’s that time of year when­­ politicians, celebrities and captains of industry are on holiday, so stories are in short supply. As a result, media outlets have to scratch around for something to fill their empty columns and news broadcasts.

We saw this last week when the BBC reported a manufactured clash between John Humphreys and Lord Melvyn Bragg, those elderly titans of British broadcasting. Humphreys had accused Bragg of allowing guests on his Radio 4 programme In Our Time to get away with repeatedly using the historic present tense when speaking of past events. For anyone unfamiliar with this phenomenon, here’s an imaginary example from the show. Bragg: “Tell us, Professor, what happened when Napoleon decided to invade Russia?” Professor: “So, it’s 1812 and Napoleon gathers his troops on the bank of the Niemen. They cross the river on 23rd June and set off in pursuit of the retreating Russian army.”

It’s not difficult to see why In Our Time guests do this. They feel the need, perhaps unconsciously, to make past events sound more vivid for listeners by referring to them as if they were happening in the present moment. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One programme, Bragg defended the practice by saying that English is always evolving and the use of the historic present tense is just another example of this process. In other words, if everyone is doing it that’s ok, and in any case it’s been around for centuries (Shakespeare, apparently).

He’s right up to a point. English is in constant flux, and a glance at a newspaper or novel written a couple of centuries ago will provide ample evidence of how much the language has changed in that time. However, it’s important to distinguish between passing fashion and permanent change. I’d say that frequent use of the historic present tense is a verbal trend that happens to have gained popularity in the early 21st Century (although football commentators began using it much earlier). It might become more widespread in everyday speech, or just as possibly vanish without trace. Whether or not you find it annoying will depend largely on preference. Personally, I feel patronised when I hear it used by academics on the radio. It’s as if they fear we, their listeners, might be unable to sustain interest in anything that happened earlier than last week. However, it’s their choice and I suppose I can put up with it.

Where I do believe the historic present has no place, outside of fiction, is in written English. Clarity of meaning is too important to sacrifice to the ambiguity of trying to sound immediate when writing about the past. Imagine an annual report that stated: “Our sales are up in Q1 and are up again in Q2, although they are down in Q3 and Q4.” Total nonsense. Lord Bragg take note.

Article date

August 7th, 2014

Richard Cheeseman

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