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As a historian, I at times get my fingers on Latin texts. Latin has a rather peculiar use of past and present tenses:

Usually, texts are written in Imperfect, which is the 'simple past', with things that are before that written in Perfect or Plusquamperfect. Now, at times there comes a narrator that clearly speaks about the past but switches for a brief part (a couple of paragraphs at most) into the Present. This is called Historical Present, which is usually...

...used in vivid or dramatic narration of past events.[1]

In translations, this switch of tenses as often translated as it is fixed, in scientific texts it is even noted where this happens. But let's instead focus on modern English.

Is historical Present a thing that can be properly used to express a shift to more vivid storytelling in English?

I know that some authors have at least played with this, for example, Charles Dickens in David Copperfield - note the switch. For easier spotting, I put the verbs in bold, and those in present in bold and italics:

If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room, and comes to speak to me.

"And how is Master David?" he says, kindly.

I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.[2]


[1] - John J. Schlichter, The Historical Tenses and their Function in Latin, in Classical Philology Vol 26 #1 (1931), pp. 46-59. Here: p.46

[2] - Charles Dickens, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery aka David Copperfield, published at Bradbury & Evans/London (1850), Chapter IX.

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    You know that a well-known and respected author has used it effectively. What else would constitute whether it would be "properly" used in English? (This is not rhetorical, I'm seeking what your criteria are for a legitimate answer to your question.) – Chris Sunami Jan 28 at 21:56
  • @ChrisSunami I meant to gain a similar effect as in latin, to make a scene more vivid or have it appear stronger in contrast to other scenes. – Trish Jan 31 at 14:12
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As you presumably know, it is conventional in English to tell stories in the past tense. "Then Bob walked up the hill. He met Sally, who was wearing a red dress ..." etc.

You certainly CAN write in a "historical present" like Latin. "Bob walks up the hill. He meets Sally, who is wearing a red dress ..."

It sounds odd to the typical English reader. That can be good or bad.

I generally advise writers to avoid doing something weird just for the sake of being weird. Novelty like that wears off quickly and just becomes tedious.

If you think it accomplishes something in your particular story, then go ahead. I'd be cautious about writing a whole novel that way. But for scenes that you want to make more "immediate" or some such, it could be a good technique.

  • you misunderstand Historical Present: you start in past, and switch to the present tense for vivid scenes. It is certainly not and never used for a whole novel. – Trish Jan 28 at 20:11
  • There's a whole generation of readers right now who consider first person, present tense to be the standard literary form. – 1006a Jan 31 at 8:11
  • @Trish Hmm, There certainly HAVE been novels written entirely in the historical present. Wikipedia's article on the subject, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present, lists two by well-known authors. – Jay Jan 31 at 20:02
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    I mean that my daughter thinks 3rd person, present tense is "fancy" and unusual, because so little of what she reads is written that way. 1st person present is not just common in YA, it's dominant. – 1006a Jan 31 at 20:40
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    It's true enough that newspapers and scholars are writing about the phenomenon. I personally hate it—I find it claustrophobic to the point of unreadable. But it's totally a thing, to quote my kids. – 1006a Feb 1 at 5:16
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What Dickens does is very clever. He starts off in the irrealis, which needs a past perfect, then he goes through all the recollected sensations, ending with the smells.

As everybody (including Proust) knows, smell is the most evocative sense; one single whiff of floor-cleaning compound is enough to instantly bring back 8 years of grade school existence in most Americans, for instance.

So the remembrance of the smells drags him into the present tense, for his present remembrance of things past. And then he's cataloging things, and events, and relations, and not just impressions. In the present tense, where he's dragged the reader.

  • while this is a good explanation why this is done (Which, btw, is why it is done in latin: to show this is a more vivid part of the things told), you might want to explain if it is good style or not. – Trish Jun 21 at 9:59
  • I thought I did. Plus, Dickens doesn't need my reviews. – jlawler Jun 21 at 15:15

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