historical-present tense for literature

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Fri Feb 5 18:28:23 UTC 2010

On Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 10:25 AM, Jonathan Lighter
<wuxxmupp2000 at gmail.com> wrote:
> 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
> neologism.
> 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
> literature.

Anthropologists, meanwhile, have been talking self-reflexively about
"the ethnographic present (tense)" for about 70 years now (though it's
not yet in the OED). Here's the earliest example I found on GB:

1939 Carleton Stevens Coon _The Races of Europe_ 471 The tense used in
the above sentence and in the following paragraph is the ethnographic

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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