historical-present tense for literature

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 5 15:25:07 UTC 2010

A 1981 GB snippet (remarkable if you ask me) from _The Truth about English_,
by Robert C. Pinkert:

"_Hamlet picks up the skull. At the concert Mozart plays beautifully._ This
literary present tense is not used so much in English as in other languages
— which is fine, since it's confusing. Stay away from it...."

GB's earliest ex. of "literary present tense" comes from 1958, in reference
to Hebrew, and the quotation marks around "literary" suggest it was a

It's also called the "timeless present tense."  The earliest GB ex. (not
fully viewable) seems to be in Norman Foerster's _Writing and Thinking_
(1931), p. 160, where it is prescribed for "permanent truths."  The snippet
ends before one can learn whether that includes imaginary events in

Arthur Sloman applies the phrase "timeless present" to Vergil's Latin usage,
but that seems to be a different sense.

Further of interest the GB snippets saith not.

Orville Prescott's NYT review (1955) of Sloan Wilson's _Man in the Gray
Flannel Suit_ puts the events of the novel in the past tense.  His review of
Pat Frank's _Alas Babylon_ in 1959 does likewise.  Carlos Baker's 1961
review of Steinbeck's _Winter of our Discontent_ uses the present.

So, if these exx. are representative, the switch, at least at the Times,
 may have come about 1960.  Why?  Elsewhere?  (Time's 1955 review of
Wilson's novel already uses the present.)

Thesis topic anyone?


On Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 8:46 AM, Amy West <medievalist at w-sts.com> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Amy West <medievalist at W-STS.COM>
> Subject:      Re: historical-present tense for literature
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Can it simply be the matter of these publications not following MLA
> or CMS strictly, or of the influence of those academic styles waning
> in the popular press because it is such an artifice? I'm going to be
> going over this with my composition students next week and will be
> pointing out that APA style does not follow this rule.
> ---Amy West
> >Date:    Thu, 4 Feb 2010 22:20:55 -0500
> >From:    Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> >Subject: Re: historical-present tense for literature
> >
> >That was certainly the explanation offered to us, if not in high school
> then
> >in freshman comp in college.  In literature (which should include drama
> and
> >cinema except for fanatics who may require a new inclusive term), the
> action
> >is "always" happening in the spooky mystical timeless way that it does.
> >
> >I've always called it the historical present, but perhaps the "literary
> >present" is more precise.
> >
> >But I wonder how and just when the style caught on. (It was so well
> >entrenched by the  '70s that we cynical grad students in English would
> roll
> >our eyes in disbelief when naive freshmen - most all of them, actually -
> >used the past tense.)   I'll read a few more reviews.
> >
> >JL
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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