Present Grumblings

I am about to grumble a bit. Bear with me, please; it won’t be long.
In informative texts, form and content are inseparable. You may have discovered the ultimate answer to life, the universe & everything (which, as we all know, is 42), but if you publish your discovery in gobbledygook nobody will be interested, except for a few zealots who will be far too much interested and start religious wars about it. How you write matters as much as what you write about. This is why I have noticed with increasing alarm a recent linguistic development in written Dutch: the abuse of a poor, innocent stylistic device called ‘historic present’. English only uses it in informal speech and tabloid headlines, Dutch also in formal (but never in very formal) written prose. The ‘historic present’ involves, as my beloved Principles & Pitfalls of English Grammar (by J. Lachlan Mackenzie, Coutinho 2002) tells me, ‘ …..using the present to invoke the past…….it is generally regarded as making the Dutch prose more vivid.’ [p.39]. And so it does – if used sparingly and with understanding. That is precisely what increasing numbers of journalists and others will not or cannot do. Our local newspaper is full of clumsy sentences like ‘Fifty years ago Mr Jansen goes to the village school’. Even a respectable popular-history magazine I subscribe to includes articles about events in the (distant) past written almost entirely in the present tense. ‘Julius Caesar is being murdered in March 44BC’. Poor man; dead for ages and still being murdered.
Like English, Dutch depends mainly on verbal tenses to ‘reflect in language our perception of time’ (again according to Principles & Pitfalls of English Grammar [p.37]). Other languages use other devices, but if we Dunglish wish to make ourselves understood we have to stick to what our own languages allow. One of these verbal tenses is the present tense, as in ‘It is now time for lunch’ (very true, incidentally). This present tense is a wily beast, in Dutch perhaps even more so than in English. Take for instance the Dutch sentence ‘Hij gaat naar huis’. The word ‘gaat’ is present tense third person singular of the verb ‘gaan’ (English speakers probably guessed as much). The sentence usually means ‘He is going home’ (present), but in other contexts it may also mean ‘He will be going home’ (future), and even occasionally ‘He must go home!'(command, very much present). In this, the Dutch present tense resembles the English, with a few tricky exceptions which have fooled me many times and will continue to do so. Now, keeping this in mind, imagine the confusion and the potential misunderstanding when a text which deals exclusively with past events is written entirely in the present tense. Or, even worse, imagine what this Persistent Present State does to a text which deals mainly with past events but also includes a few current issues. The poor reader is left to work out what happened after what, what is now and what was long ago, and who did what before, or after, or perhaps simultaneously with, somebody else. Most readers are smart enough to eventually figure it out, assisted by a sprinkling of ‘before’, ‘afterwards’, ‘finally’ or ‘the next year’ the writer has (hopefully!) been kind enough to add. But if the reader understands the intended meaning of such a text it will be despite its style, not because of it. Instead of making the text more intelligible, as good writing should do, its style has made it less so. There is probably a textbook for journalists somewhere which says ‘Use the historic present! It makes your texts more lively’. Well, yes, up to a point. There is nothing wrong with the ‘historic present’ as a stylistic device, but as with so many other things overindulgence is a fault – and that is precisely what these writers have done. As we Dutch might put it, ‘Ze hebben een klok horen luiden maar weten niet waar de klepel hangt’. Very true indeed.
Grumble, grumble, grumble. It really is time for my lunch.