U.S. Intellectual History Blog

is it just me…?

…or is there a pronounced trend lately against people speaking and writing about the past, in the past tense?

I notice this tic most often when grading student papers, in which those under my tutelage nearly always write things like, “Ames begins his career,” rather than “Ames began.” But I’ve also seen it frequently in History Channel-type documentaries, on which the academic talking head will say, presumably to add a sense of gripping immediacy to an event that happened long ago, something along the lines of “Booth jumps onto the stage and shouts, ‘Sic semper tyrranis!'”

I have seen this mode of speaking creep into conference presentations and, yes, my own course lectures. And it’s no longer used only for sudden or discrete events, but also in statements like “after Vietnam and Watergate, Americans begin to lose confidence in their country.” This style appears to be very quickly becoming the standard way of speaking about history, and even writing about it, at least informally.

Assuming that this trend actually exists, the question is whether it is in any way significant: I mean, everyone knows you’re speaking about the past, right? So where’s the harm? I’m not sure there is any, but I’ll admit that it does bother me. I think that my problem is that, if a style that originally served to make the past more immediate has now become standard, then a) it will no longer serve the function for which it was adopted, and b) the distinction formerly made by the older formulation will become lost. Such developments would inevitably impoverish the way that we think.

At the heart of my nagging concern is the fact that students seem to write this way, not for dramatic effect, but as a matter of course. It reminds me of people learning a new foreign language, in which tense distinctions are too difficult and subtle, so everything comes out in the present tense. And I shudder to think of the day that my French or Spanish is anyone’s model for speaking about history.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I always thought students wrote that way because it had been drilled into their heads in English class that they have to write in present tense to discuss a text. So when they are discussing history texts, their first inclination is to use the present. Most style guides I’ve seen for history include the point to write about the past in the past tense, I think because it is a major problem.

    But you’re deeper point is why is it a problem. I think part of it for me is that a lot of history the students get before we see them is focused on the accessibility of the past. Costume dramas make the past seem very close, as do the facile comparisons that litter our media. And while the accessibility of the past is an easy way to justify teaching it (because it is so close to learning lessons from the past), I think part of our job is to introduce the past as another country. And maybe using the past tense sets that off.

  2. the postmodernists are right, and we live now in an age of flattened pure contemporeneity?

    I use the present tense when doing textual analysis (that is, to explain the moves in an argument), and the past tense when describing particular events in the past. So, “*The Souls of Black Folk* was published…” and “In *The Souls of Black Folk,* Du Bois begins each chapter with…” obviously, things sometimes get confused, but it seems like a reasonable system to me.

    I had thought that this was a broader convention–perhaps it’s idiosyncratic?

  3. Both Lauren and Eric cite examples relating to textual analysis. But the trend I note goes much further than this. None of the examples in my original post–which I believe are fairly typical, even thought I made them up–relate to commentary on specific writers.

    Even in the realm of textual analysis, though, this convention doesn’t answers as many questions as it could. Thought I think Eric is generally orthodox in his usage, it’s still true that we might say “DuBois begins…” or “DuBois argues..” but would not, on the basis of such an analysis, conclude that “DuBois believes…” That suddenly sounds weird, like you didn’t know he’s been dead for fifty years.

  4. My students constantly use the construction, “DuBois would go on to become blah blah blah…” or “Civil Rights activists would later redefine such and such…”

    What IS that tense? Subjunctive? Some kind of weird future tense? And why do my students use it to write about the past?

  5. I recommend Arthur Danto’s Narration and Knowledge for an analysis of narrative stucture. I don’t know of any better defense of the importance of narrative and tensed sentences, or the value of project verbs.

    I agree that the history channel does contribute to this occurence, but I think what you’re witnessing is actually a part of a turning point in American education. Our educational system has largely failed us, at least in part, because it is still clinging to the older 19th century disciplinarian model of educational theory. It stunts intellectual growth and in this case, has made History Channel, faux history,a more instructive source than anything else.

    Who’s to blame here?

  6. I share Eric’s practice (about tense usage) and try to teach it to my students. But I also agree with Mike that the “historical present” is currently enjoying a growth period.

    I try to discourage it because I think it does flatten out the past and contributes to a general sloppiness about chronology, narrative, and, ultimately, cause and effect. The historical present also adds to the general word-cloudiness that sometimes substitutes for argument and analysis in many undergraduate papers.

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