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Using Present Tense in a Story About the Past

Have you noticed people switching to the present tense when they're telling stories? It's called the "historical present tense."

By
Neal Whitman, Writing for
7-minute read
Episode #846
The Quick And Dirty

You can use the present tense to talk about the past to make things more interesting, but don’t use past tense to talk about the present. That doesn’t make them more interesting; it makes them more confusing. 

A couple of months ago, I ran an episode that contained part of an interview I’d done with Laura Bergells, a business communication coach and storytelling expert. If you listened to the episode, you might remember that she made a suggestion about how I could heighten the drama in telling the story of how I began doing the Grammar Girl podcast. 

Here’s a short clip of how I began the story when I told it to Laura: 

[AUDIO CLIP]

Actually, my background is in science and technology. I'm a Ph.D. program dropout in biology, and I was working as a science writer and editor, and frankly, I was quite bored. And so I got interested in this thing called podcasting. I love technology, I love gadgets. So I started a science podcast called Absolute Science. And, you know, I just I fell in love with it. ... And I did that podcast for about eight months. But I was working as a freelance writer and editor. And time really is money when you're a freelancer, and the podcast was taking so much time that I couldn't justify doing it anymore. But I didn't want to give up on podcasting. 

Laura suggested that I could try telling it in the present tense instead of the past tense:

[AUDIO CLIP]

Picture it, it's 2005, I'm a science writer, I'm living in Santa Monica, and for fun, I'm doing a science podcast every week, and the science podcast is really complicated. It's taking me a lot of time. And then on top of that, I'm doing lots of other writing, and I'm getting burned out. 

This use of present tense to describe past events is called the historical present tense. I loved the “you’re right there with me” feel that it gave the story, and it got me to wondering about how English speakers use historical present tense when telling their stories. A paper published in 1981, by Deborah Schiffrin, gives some interesting answers. 

Historical present and narrative structure

Schiffrin used a framework for analyzing narratives that was proposed by William Labov. In Labov’s framework, the first part of a narrative is called the abstract. It’s the part that tells the listener they’re about to hear a story. Laura did this part for me in our interview; here’s what she said: 

[AUDIO CLIP]

So you must have a story about how your wildly popular podcast all got started.

It’s no surprise to have present tense in the abstract of a story because it comes before we’ve gotten into the actual events of the narrative. In other words, this is ordinary present tense, not historical present. Schiffrin studied 73 narratives and found that none of them contained historical present tense in their abstract.

Labov’s second component is called orientation. This is the part that establishes the setting and main characters in the story. It basically tells you what the “before” situation is. In my story, this was the part about doing freelance writing and producing a science podcast. This was also the part that Laura recast in the historical present tense. However, in Schiffrin’s study, only 3% of the verbs in the orientation sections were in historical present tense. So it does happen, but not very much.

Labov calls the main body of a story the complicating action. This is where Schiffrin found just about all of the historical present: 30% of almost 1,300 verbs! I, on the other hand, didn’t use any historical present in this part of my story. It was all past tense, like in this sentence: 

[AUDIO CLIP]

So I took those tricks I was looking at myself, the advice I was giving my clients, and I just put together a very short three- or four-minute scripted podcast that I did all by myself that took a lot less time than the science podcast.

Labov’s last two narrative components are called evaluation and coda. Evaluation can happen at almost any point in the story when the narrator offers some commentary on what happened. It uses present or past tense in an expected way. Here’s an example of evaluation from the orientation part of my story: 

[AUDIO CLIP]

I had been writing magazine articles, and you never hear from readers. 

In that example, there’s both present tense, in “you never hear,” and past perfect tense, in “I had been writing.” I used past tense in this example from the complicating action part of my story:

[AUDIO CLIP]

[A]nd I thought, well, this can't last.

The coda is a sentence that wraps up the story and brings us back to the present. “And they lived happily ever after” is probably the most familiar coda. My coda went like this: 

[AUDIO CLIP]

Now we have about 10 shows, and Grammar Girl has been going strong for 15 years.

Do Schiffrin’s numbers hold up these days?

I was curious if Schiffrin’s stats would hold true with some more recent narratives. These days, there’s a ready source of hundreds of thousands of narratives, many of them with transcripts already completed: podcasts! I didn’t analyze 73 of them, as Schiffrin did. Instead, I chose just three:

  • Real Fake Bridges,” by Jacob Goldstein, on "99% Invisible." This story tells about how an architect noticed that the supposedly fake bridges on the proposed Euro note designs were actually modeled on real bridges.
  • Deal,” by Denise Bledsoe Slaughter, on "The Moth." Slaughter tells about her first encounter with bartering in order to get through a lean time.
  • You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, but You Can Never Leave,” by David Kestenbaum and Elna Baker, on "This American Life." Baker tells Kestenbaum about trying to keep her siblings safe as a teenager during a harrowing encounter when a mentally unstable woman invades their hotel room.

In all three stories, the percentages of historical present in the complicating action part are less than the 30% that Schiffrin found overall. In the narrative segment of “Real Fake Bridges,” 28% of the verbs in the complicating action parts of the story were in historical present tense. In “Deal,” 15% of the verbs in the complicating action were in historical present tense. In “You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, but You Can Never Leave,” 22% of the  verbs in the complicating action were in historical present tense. 

As for historical present in the orientation parts, the percentages for two out of the three stories were much higher than the 3% that Schiffrin found. “Real Fake Bridges” had no historical present, but in “Deal,” 18% of the verbs in the orientation were in the historical present. David Kestenbaum did the orientation part of Baker’s story, and used the  historical present in 17% of those verbs.

Why the historical present tense is possible

Schiffrin noticed a couple of facts that make the historical present possible in English narratives. To illustrate them, let’s take a sentence from the “Real Fake Bridges” story:

[AUDIO CLIP]

And as Russ is looking at these pictures, the first thing that catches his eye, is the 500 Euro note

The verb “catches” is in the simple present tense, but using it to talk about this past event is unlikely to cause confusion, not only because we already know that this whole story happened in the past, but also because if we were actually talking about the present time, we’d use the present progressive tense: “the first thing that is catching his eye.”

But what about “is looking?” That verb is already in the present progressive tense, so why doesn’t it cause confusion? Schiffrin observed that unlike in any other part of the narrative, sentences in the complicating action part are understood to occur in sequence. Each verb is understood to refer to an action that happened right after the previous one, regardless of tense. Since verb tense isn’t needed for showing event timing, it can be used to heighten the drama of some part of the action. 

The past perfect doesn’t participate

One quirk that Schiffrin didn’t mention showed up in my selection of three stories. Listen to the following two sentences. The first is from “Real Fake Bridges”:

[AUDIO CLIP]

Russ calls up the designer of the bridge who he’d talked to for the magazine, and he winds up faxing him a picture of this 500 Euro bill.

The second is from “You Can Check Out Any Time You Like,” where Baker’s father later confronts the hotel management about their security:

[AUDIO CLIP]

They tell him that she had been outside.

Both sentences use the historical present tense: “Russ calls up,” “he winds up,” and “They tell him.” But notice that both sentences also use the past perfect tense: “who he’d talked to” and “she had been outside.” Why didn’t the speakers use present perfect tense, to go with the present tense of the rest of their sentences? That is, why didn’t Jonathan Goldstein say, “Russ calls up the designer of the bridge who he’s talked to,” and why didn’t Elna Baker say, “They tell him that she has been outside”?

After reading Schiffrin’s paper, this seemingly random breaking of the pattern makes sense. Notice that both of the events referred to by the past perfect tense verbs are outside the narrative. In “Real Fake Bridges,” Russ’s earlier conversation with someone for the magazine story was part of the orientation phase, not the complicating action. In “You Can Check Out Any Time You Like,” the woman being outside happened before any of the events of Baker’s story. These are not the high-drama, “you are there” pieces. Naturally, they’re not in historical present tense. 

In fact, if Goldstein or Kestenbaum had used present perfect tense, it would have made those events sound like part of the complicating action, and confused the narrative. For example, if Kestenbaum had said, “They tell him that she has been outside,” it would have sounded like the woman being outside happened just before the conversation with the hotel management, rather than before the beginning of the story.

I had no idea there was so much subtlety in how and when storytellers shift into present tense. In fact, there’s more than I presented here: Schiffrin analyzes a lot of other factors that play a role, which you can read for yourself if you want to. I’ll put the information about her paper in the show notes. But here’s a quick and dirty tip for you: You can use the present tense to talk about the past to make things more interesting, but don’t use past tense to talk about the present. That doesn’t make them more interesting; it makes them more confusing. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Citations +

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.