Friday, May 9, 2008

The "historical present" -- a little bit goes a long way

From Ruge Rules:

Historical Present

The historical present is the present tense used to narrate a past event.

In general, avoid the use of the historical present in telling a narrative of any considerable length.

The protracted use of the historical present is deadly monotonous and exposes the writer to the liability of error in tense.

The historical present has certain legitimate uses. Orators frequently employ the historical present to make something more vivid.


The Ruge Rule above should inspire a parodical thought or two of the historical present gone awry, such as, "Oog the cave man surveys the primordial plain, grasping his rough-hewn spear as he begins his search for the mammoth whose meat and hide will sustain his clan through an entire Ice Age winter."

You could see how it might get old. The historical present can often be used effectively in sports stories, to describe an athlete doing something wonderful and get the reader into the scene, along the lines of . . .
"With each blow, Foreman grows more frustrated. Despite the merciless barrage, Ali still stands. 'Is that all you got?' he asks, grinning. For the first time in Foreman's career, there is doubt. Can this man be brought down?"
But it's probably a good idea to switch back pretty quickly into "real time."

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