Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Present Tense for Historians

Have you noticed how, in recent times, historians describe sequences of historical events using the present tense? This I find to be moderately, if not quite, annoying. The present tense is used to identify events taking place at the current moment. The phrase "I am blogging" identifies the activity in which I am presently engaged. It is happening now; viz. as I write. Events that happened in the past, HAPPENED. I'll give you some examples, so that we are 'on the same page'. A former colleague of mine, Bill Robbins - historian of the early Australian convict era - used the present tense ALL THE TIME when describing past events. Here is an example: When speaking about the actions of Governor Macquarie, Bill [very sadly, Bill passed away a couple of years ago] would espouse "Seeing that the convicts working in the sawmill were becoming unruly, Governor Macquarie decides to place restrictions on their right to fraternise." [Of course these aren't Bill's exact words. It is merely an EXAMPLE of what he MIGHT have said.] Get the picture? Bill is talking about something that happened quite some time ago, but he spoke using the PRESENT tense: "decides". See? Bill COULD have said: "... Governor Macquarie decided to place restrictions...". Bill was not the only offender. As a regular listener to ABC's Radio National, it is all too common to hear this quirky way of referring to past events by presenters. I suppose it does orient the listener to the contemporary moment when decisions were being made. It is all too easy for today's consumers of historical descriptions to assume away the fact that decisions were made and that the consequences of those decisions are now etched into the historical fabric. The alternative options, along with their consequences, have disappeared from the record. [In fact, alternative courses of action were never part of the record, by definition]. "Macquarie decides ..." actually puts the listener (reader?) into the frame of the decision-maker. It does engage one in the act of making a decision from the range of possibilities available. While this trend in historical recollection is mildly irritating, it does bring the subject to life. Maybe I should build a bridge - and jolly-well get over it! I was fond of Bill and I did enjoyed his presentations on convict life in early Sydney Town. ... and I do enjoy ABC's Radio National. Just thought I'd get this off my chest ...

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