Bragg, Humphrys and the historic present tense

BBC stalwarts John Humphrys and Melvyn Bragg have been arguing about the historic present tense.

To the uninitiated, the historic present tense occurs when the speaker refers to past events as though they are currently happening. Example: ‘What Wittgenstein wants to say here is…’ or ‘Churchill is clearly concerned that…’

Humphrys took umbrage with Bragg’s use of historic past tense in several editions of In Our Time, and the pair even appeared on the World at One to debate the matter.

So should the present tense be adopted when referring to past events?

Humphrys, who sits in the no camp, said: ‘It gives a bogus, an entirely bogus, sense of immediacy; it is irritating, it is pretentious.’

He continued: ‘Melvyn’s programme is magnificent, and when they [academics] do that they are excluding ordinary Joes and it’s because they want to exclude us… I think they want to say “we’re rather special, you’re just a bunch of oiks”.’

Bragg’s defence: ‘I don’t do it very much; we’ve checked and only occasionally when the academics are in that mode I’ll say “and after that experiment he goes on to do such and such”.’ He then argued that the historic past tense is more inclusive than Humphrys suggested.

The Guardian’s David Shariatmadari has also picked up the grammatical gauntlet.

‘Rather than being “bogus” I think it’s a perfectly natural way of thinking about the past. After all, when we remember something, we experience it as though we’re spooling it back in our heads, in real time. It is a re-run of the present. We dive into the recollection, and live it out again. Think of hypnosis: a subject in a trance will use the present tense, even if he or she is describing a past life… In fact, it represents an instinctive response to narrative. It is neurologically truthful. It’s a shame these two big brains can’t appreciate it.’

Convinced? At this point a content-marketer should probably do one of two things: find out how much of the audience feels like Humphrys, or Shariatmadari and act accordingly; or, simply err on the side of caution.

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