Historical writing and when to use present tense

As a professional genealogist, much of what I do on a daily basis consists of writing. From client research reports to case studies to instructional articles or blog posts or even books, I probably write on average a half-dozen pages a day, every day. (Aside: in today’s digital world, is it still appropriate to discuss writing in terms of pages? It almost seems a bit like giving directions in terms of time, like “go down that road for seven minutes, then turn left.) This, of course, does not include the volumes of emails I compose and send every day, to clients and colleagues.

Recently Ben Yagoda, a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware, posted “Ben Yagoda Gets Sick of the Historical Present” on the Lingua Franca blog—an excellent blog for anyone interested in writing and editing. Mr. Yagoda gives several examples of the historical present tense, a history of its use in various genres of writing, and an exploration of why it might be so popular. He concludes that the tense is “essentially a novelty item. It’s tacky. Give it a rest.” The comments to this post are also quite informative, as a debate arises over the use of the historic present in discussing literature.[1]

There are two basic conventions for use of past and present tense in genealogical writing:

1. When discussing people or events of the past, use the past tense, e.g. “On 9 June 1827 Victoire sold L’Hermitage to John Brien.”

2. When discussing specific documents or records, use the present tense, e.g. “Baptismal records describe Caroline’s children as illegitimate” or “No Joseph Ridgely appears as a Maryland household head in 1820 or 1830 [referring to the federal census].”

The use of the historical present tense in these situations stems from the same logic as the use of the tense when discussing literature. Records exist in the present time. What they say (or don’t say) is said in the present time, when a modern reader reads it. So it would be proper to state that Victoire sold land in 1827, and that the deed describes the property in a certain way. When I look at the deed in 2013 (hypothetically) it says the same thing that it said in 1827.

Other genres tend to use the historical present to describe a past event. As historical writers, however, we should be careful to follow the two conventions mentioned above. Not only does this limit the possibility of confusion, following grammatical conventions simply makes our writing more professional.


[1] Ben Yagoda, “Ben Yagoda Gets Sick of the Historical Present,” Lingua Franca blog, posted 23 April 2013 (http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca : accessed 28 April 2013).

10 thoughts on “Historical writing and when to use present tense

  1. I did not read the referenced blog post, but the historical present has always seemed to me to be a tool of historical fiction writers giving a viewpoint of a character from that time perspective. Or someone under hypnosis describing events of the past as if they were taking place now.

    However I have also seen it used very briefly in genealogical narratives, including ones by professionals, to *speculate* about personality traits of subjects being discussed. Instead of only setting an individual in context of historical background, they move to the more personal conjectured feelings/motivations of the individual in that context. Which is the stuff of “heart-warming” oral traditions supposedly passed down intact over a span of centuries, but built on few actual real data points.

    So while perhaps there are exceptions, I would say that when a genealogical narrative uses the historical present, it most likely moves from setting a individual in historical context into rank speculation about that individual’s feelings and motivations, absent autobiographical material to support same.

    I would imagine that we all try to “get into the heads” of our ancestors at some point and *imagine* how they felt and acted and why. Which might even provide a hypothesis that can be tested in research. But in the end imagination is not genealogy for serious researchers. Unpersonalized historical context is.

  2. Thank you. The timing of this information is “timely.” Anyway, it’s helping me solve a problem I’ve been working on for the past few days.

  3. Interesting topic. When I first experienced reading the “historical present tense” in an article in a popular historical magazine, I felt revulsion … author adopting a “voice” in an event where he did not participate. This is not exactly relevant to your topic of genealogical writing. But as a genealogy blogger, and becoming more aware of this usage, I now employ it at times when describing a past anecdote in which I took part.myself. Personally, in writing ancestral narratives, I would not use the device to “assume” my ancestors’ feelings, motives, or personalities.

  4. Great explanation! Got it! Now to apply it consistently… I suppose if I wrote every day for genealogy purposes, I might get it faster, eh? Thanks for posting this.

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