Historical present

In linguistics and rhetoric, the historical present or historic present, also called dramatic present or narrative present, is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events. It is widely used in writing about history in Latin (where it is sometimes referred to by its Latin name, praesens historicum) and some modern European languages. In English, it is used above all in historical chronicles (listing a series of events). It is also used in fiction, for "hot news" (as in headlines), and in everyday conversation.[1] In conversation, it is particularly common with quotative verbs such as say and go,[2] and especially the newer quotative like.[3][4] It is typically thought to heighten the dramatic force of the narrative by describing events as if they were still unfolding, and/or by foregrounding some events relative to others.[5][6]


In an excerpt from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, the shift from the past tense to the historical present gives a sense of immediacy, as of a recurring vision:

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.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter IX

Novels that are written entirely in the historical present include notably John Updike's Rabbit, Run, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

In describing fiction

Summaries of the narratives (plots) of works of fiction are conventionally presented using the present tense, rather than the past tense. At any particular point of the story, as it unfolds, there is a now and so a past and a future, so whether some event mentioned in the story is past, present, or, future changes as the story progresses. The entire plot description is presented as if the story's now were a continuous present. Thus, in summarizing the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, one may write:

Manette is obsessed with making shoes, a trade he learned while in prison.

In other languages

In French, the historical present is often used in journalism and in historical texts to report events in the past.[7]

The extinct language Shasta appeared to allow the historical present in narratives.[8][9]

The New Testament, written in Koine Greek in the 1st century CE, is notable for use of the historical present, particularly in the Gospel of Mark.[10][11][12]

See also


  • Brinton, L. J. (1992). "The historical present in Charlotte Bronte's novels: Some discourse functions". Style. 26 (2): 221–244.
  • Huddleston, R; Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
  • Leech, G. N. (1971). Meaning and the English Verb. London: Longman. ISBN 0-582-52214-5.


  1. Huddleston & Pullum 2002, p. 129–131.
  2. Leech 1971, p. 7.
  3. Blyth, Carl; Recktenwald, Sigrid; Wang, Jenny (1990). "I'm like, "Say What?!": A New Quotative in American Oral Narrative". American Speech. 65 (3): 215–227. doi:10.2307/455910. ISSN 0003-1283. JSTOR 455910.
  4. Tagliamonte, Sali A.; D'Arcy, Alexandra (2007-04-25). "Frequency and variation in the community grammar: Tracking a new change through the generations". Language Variation and Change. 19 (2). doi:10.1017/s095439450707007x. ISSN 0954-3945. S2CID 143126937.
  5. Brinton 1992, p. 221.
  6. Schiffrin, Deborah (March 1981). "Tense Variation in Narrative". Language. 57 (1): 45–62. doi:10.2307/414286. ISSN 0097-8507. JSTOR 414286.
  7. Revaz, Françoise (2002). "Le présent et le futur historiques : des intrus parmi les temps du passé ?" [The historical present and future: intruders among the past tenses?]. Le Français Aujourd'hui (in French). Paris: Armand Colin-Dunod. 4 (139): 87–96. doi:10.3917/lfa.139.0087.
  8. Silver, Shirley (1966). The Shasta Language (PhD thesis). University of California, Berkeley.
  9. Mithun, Marianne (1999). The languages of native North America. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521232287. OCLC 40467402.
  10. "How to Search Connections between Greek and English Bibles". June 15, 2017.
  11. Osburn, Carroll D. (1983). "The Historical Present in Mark as a Text-Critical Criterion". Biblica. 64 (4): 486–500. JSTOR 42707093.
  12. For a list of all occurrences of the historical present in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, see the LOY Excursus: Mark's Editorial Style, under the subheading "Mark's Freedom and Creativity" at JerusalemPerspective.com.

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