Historical present

Article

January 21, 2022

The historical present, also called present of narration, is the use of the indicative present in a sentence or a text relating past events from the point of view of the narrator. The use of this verb tense is frequent in journalistic and historiographic discourse.

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The historical present is distinct from the present of "general truth" — also called "omnitemporal" or "gnomic" — which indicates that a fact is true as a whole, regardless of when it is considered: “René Descartes is a French philosopher. » “The chest of Liberty Leading the People is half bare. »

Usage

The historical present is part, with the present of reportage, of the non-deictic use of a verbal tense of a deictic nature. The deictic function being to refer to the moment of enunciation, the role of the historical present is that of a narrative/discursive updater of the past which intervenes in order to interrupt the temporal sequence of a bygone past. The alternation between the present and the time of the past as pivots of the event frame makes it possible to provide contrast effects to highlight a particular episode of the narration. The historical present alone cannot occupy the narrative space and must be used in association with other tenses: imperfect, pluperfect and historical future. The historical present is generally introduced by tenses of the past, to relate a fact that took place in a more or less distant past, presenting it as if it were happening at the time of speaking. It is often used to give a particular liveliness to the story. La Fontaine used it willingly: “We tied his feet, we hung him up for you; / Then this man and his son wear it like a chandelier. » When the historical present is associated with a past time, the present must express the essential facts, and the past, the accessory facts, the explanations: “I watched with concern the light of the almost consumed lamps which threatened to go out. Suddenly a harmony resembling the distant chorus of celestial spirits issues from the depths of these sepulchral dwellings: these divine accents expired and were reborn in turn; they seemed to soften still further as they wandered down the winding underground roads. I get up and walk forward…” Expansion of the process: “this use of the present tense has become widespread during the more recent period. In fact, the present tense of the indicative now has “a null value which makes it suitable for use in a statement situating the trial at any time. This omnitemporal value of the present allows it to be used in any temporal context. The temporal dimension is then indicated by joining the verbal form with a date or an adverb of time: “Pierre is coming tomorrow. » “In 1789, the people of Paris took the Bastille. » “From the 8th century, the peninsula, until then fairly isolated, opened up to new influences from the sea and the Orient. » To mark relations of anteriority between various events or a temporal disparity, the historical present is used in combination with the simple past or the compound past: “This autonomy displeased the emperor of the East, who also sought to drive away the Ostrogoths, who were ravaging the Balkans. This people, of Arian religion, is led by Theodoric, who spent his youth as a hostage in Byzantium, and therefore knows the Roman administration well, but whose ambitions exceed those of a delegate of the emperor. He entered Italy, sent by him, in 489, and suppressed Odoacer in 493. “The Villanovians characterize the early Iron Age, with their incineration tombs. Their expansion was considerable.

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