Relieve the past in the historical present
Question: After the “myself” issue – how about “her and me” or “him and I?” And
as another issue, why on earth do sportscasters refer to past events in the present tense? – Nancy Blackwell
Answer: Since there are football games going on all around me as I try to write this column, I think I’ll tackle your second question today, Nancy.
The rhetorical tense you’re referring to is called historical present, or dramatic present. It is used, as you’ve pointed out, to narrate events which have already happened as though they are ongoing. Journalists use this technique quite frequently when writing headlines: “House burns out of control” versus “House burned out of control.” The historical present tense gives the headline a greater sense of being immediate, “breaking” news, even though the event may have happened the day before.
The historical present tense is used frequently in accounts of history in an attempt to place the reader or audience “in the action,” so to speak. Ken Burns’ fantastic documentary on the Civil War uses the historical present to wonderful effect. “If Robert E. Lee loses the siege of Petersburg,” Burns’ narrator might say, “the South has all but lost the war.” Although the events being described happened more than 150 years ago, the historical present tense allows Burns to maintain the sense of drama for his audience which actual observers of the conflict would have felt.
Sportscasters, I imagine, use the historical present for much the same effect (Although I have heard speculation that they employ it out of laziness, as using past tense would often require a too-hefty mouthful of words.) Being a Butler grad, I’ll offer you an example from the university’s first try at the NCAA basketball championship against Duke University. As the clock ran down, Butler University sophomore Gordon Hayward took a half-court shot which would have won the game for his team. This is the clip ESPN plays during every Butler basketball game anymore. Here is what the sportscaster says: “If Hayward makes the shot, the Bulldogs win their first NCAA championship. If not, they go home to Indianapolis as runners-up.” Of course, the shot was off by some ridiculously minute degree – and we had to suffer another championship to Duke – but the historical present tense allows us to relive that heart-stopping moment as the ball pinged off the backboard over and over again. And over and over and over again, thanks to ESPN.