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.
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.