Using Present Tense in a Story About the Past

The girl who sat next to me [is or was?] named Stephanie.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #334

A listener named Becky had a question about present and past tense. She wanted to know which of the following was correct: “The girl who was next to me was named Stephanie,” or “The girl who was next to me is named Stephanie.”

I’m assuming that the Stephanie she’s talking about is someone who Becky knows is still alive and still named Stephanie. On the one hand, she wants to use the past tense because the other verb in the sentence is in the past tense, and she doesn’t want to switch tenses needlessly. On the other hand, if it’s still true that the girl is named Stephanie, wouldn’t she want to use the present tense?

They Used to Make the Best Milkshakes

Becky’s question reminds me of a radio commercial I heard years ago. I’ll just slip into the historical present tense to recount their conversation to tell you about it. An older man and probably his grandson are talking about a local ice cream shop. The grandfather says, “They used to make the best milkshakes,” and he reminisces about just how good those shakes were. Then he says, “In fact, let’s go get one right now!” The grandson says, “Wait a minute! You said they used to make the best shakes.” The grandfather replies, “Yep! And they still do.”

Her name is still Stephanie, but the story happened in the past.

Did the grandfather lie? I think we can agree that he didn’t lie in a strict sense, but he certainly misled and confused his grandson—and the radio audience, too, which was the whole point. It forced us to take special note of the fact that the ice cream place still made milkshakes. Actually, the place they were advertising is still in business, and it still makes milkshakes, so should I have said, “the fact that the ice cream place still makes milkshakes”?



The point that Becky’s question and the radio commercial illustrate is that using the past tense can convey messages other than just that something was true in the past. Linguists call these implicatures: messages that go beyond the strict meaning of a phrase or sentence.

Here’s another example. If your friend from two states away calls you and says, “I’ll be in town next month,” and you understand that he wants to get together with you while he’s in town, that’s an implicature. He didn’t say, “Let’s get together.” You just know.

If Aardvark tells Squiggly, “Red ants taste the best,” Aardvark is implicating that he has eaten red ants, even though he hasn’t said as much.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.