Saturday, 1 June 2013

Historical present

When telling stories about past events, people often switch into present tense, as in I was walking home from work one day. All of a sudden this man comes up to me and says....  This phenomenon, called the historical present, has a long history in English and is found in numerous other languages, both ancient and modern. Linguists have sometimes suggested that historical present makes stories more vivid primarily by bringing past actions into the immediate present. However, it has been noted that, no matter how exciting stories are, the speakers never use present tense verbs exclusively even when relating the most crucial events. In addition, past and present tense alternations tend to occur only between events that are markedly different. In other words, tense alternation usually does not occur when two verbs are viewed as belonging to one larger event. For example, two verbs joined by and that share the same subject tend to share the same tense as well, especially when the subject appears only once, just before the first verb, as in Those two people came in and sat down.  It seems, then, that the historical present serves more to separate events within stories than to bring stories to life. One interesting exception to this is the verb say: its tense alternations do not seem regular; in addition, its third person present form says is also used in nonstandard narration with I, as in So I says to the guy, I says....


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