The Magazine

There's No Tense Like the Present

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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So The Scrapbook is rooting around on the Internet and stumbles on a blog piece by Ben Yagoda in the online edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Scrapbook begins to leave the page, but then hesitates: The Chronicle is not usually on The Scrapbook’s reading list, but there’s something about this essay, some indefinable something, that prompts The Scrapbook to pause​—​and read it. 

Valley Speak

What caught The Scrapbook’s attention, in fact, was the headline: “Ben Yagoda Gets Sick of the Historical Present”​—​which, as it happens, does not mean that Mr. Yagoda is alienated from his times, but has had just enough of the growing tendency​—​in the media, to be sure, but also among so-called scholars​—​to describe the past habitually in the present tense. You know what we mean. There’s the paragraph before this one, for example; or you can imagine a documentary on the History Channel: “Kennedy arrives in Dallas. He knows he has to reconcile the two wings of his party. But waiting for him in nearby Fort Worth is a disaffected ex-Marine sharpshooter named Lee Harvey Oswald . . . ” 

Yagoda furnishes some worthy specimens: “There’s a vacancy on the Supreme Court after Lincoln’s won that second nomination, and everyone comes and suggests various people” (Doris Kearns Goodwin); “At some point L. Ron Hubbard takes to the sea and he moves the main people in Scientology to the sea with him” (Terry Gross). He mentions certain novelists and short-story writers (John Updike, Raymond Carver, Ian McEwan) who have used the tense as well. And he tries to understand why the historical present might work successfully in fiction​—​as, The Scrapbook would agree, it occasionally does. 

But mostly he’s just fed up with the sudden ubiquity of the historical present, as are we. Yet while Ben Yagoda is willing to analyze the subject, The Scrapbook prefers to issue a blanket condemnation and blame the spreading virus on plain laziness and ignorance. It’s bad enough that television documentarians feel as if they have to patronize their audience with a dumbed-down, breathless, you-are-there voice​—​“William and his army cross the Channel, and land at Pevensey!”​—​but it’s worse when writers, historians, and people who should otherwise know better seem incapable of navigating more than one grammatical tense.

Everybody gets a good laugh at what might be called Valleyspeak, or the adolescent voice​—​“So I’m, like, at the mall and he’s going, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I’m, like .  .  .”​—​but really, what’s the difference between that and Professor Doris Kearns Goodwin describing 150-year-old events as if she were on a satellite feed from the Lincoln White House? 

The Scrapbook tends to shun the curmudgeonly voice as well, but on this subject, we stand in solidarity with Ben Yagoda.

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