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In news papers we see headings like this

"India signs a pact with Russia"

"Sachin hits another century"

"Obama wins presidential election"

These are completed events, aren't they? Then, why are these sentences not mentioned in past tense?

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I slightly broadened your title, since this actually relates to most, if not all, headlines. –  simchona Jun 20 '13 at 7:19
    
Why do newspaper headlines use strange syntax rules? also asks about “past events written in present” but that question got short shrift in answers. Also see question #8732 –  jwpat7 Jun 20 '13 at 15:36
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There has been a fashionable academic trend in the last decade to describe the past using the present tense, in the way newspapers have done for a long time. I think the purpose is to engage the reader as if they are witnessing history as it happens, more like reading a fiction book than nonfiction. –  Mark Lakata Jun 20 '13 at 18:57

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The headline of a newspaper was originally intended to attract the readers attention (and encourage them to purchase the paper). Framing the bold headline statements in the present tense gives them a sense of urgency and excitement that is (assumed to be) more enticing to the reader.

As other answers have said, the essence of news coverage is its immediacy. The history books will report that "the Taliban established a faux-embassy in Qatar in the middle of 2013". In the newspapers it is "Taliban open mid-east office".

If you watched a delayed coverage of a test match, would you expect the commentators to refer to each event in the past tense? Newspapers operate in the same fashion.

Even though the events are technically in the past (as is the instant when I just typed "in the past") news coverage of them is presented as though it was occurring at the same time.

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News is, almost by definition, what's happening now.

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I cannot agree with this. Examples I gave are obvious that they are past events. –  Sai Krishna Jun 20 '13 at 7:39
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@SaiKrishna: If you ignore my answer, yes, you get your question again. Instead, pay attention to my answer. These are headlines. Headlines present news. News is, by definition, what is happening now. Thus, they are in the present tense. The headlines present news. What happened last week is not news. What is happening is news. –  David Schwartz Jun 20 '13 at 7:41
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Queen Anne was dead. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 20 '13 at 8:21
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More likely Sai expected "Queen Anne died" instead of "Queen Anne dies" –  mplungjan Jun 20 '13 at 8:34
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now (nou) adv. 1. At the present time: goods now on sale; the now aging dictator. 2. At once; immediately: Stop now. 3. In the immediate past; very recently: left the room just now. (+ other senses) If we employ this third sense given by the AHD and amend the above to 'News is, almost by definition, what's happening / has happened just now', it all makes sense. People can argue over when 'very recently' started if they wish to do so. It keeps changing anyway. Fortiter's answer above is eloquent and a fine explanation. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 20 '13 at 8:49

This is a specific use of the verb tense known as the historical present, which means using a present tense verb to describe an event that has already happened. The excellent language podcast Lexicon Valley devoted an episode to it. They primarily discussed its use in fiction and descriptions of more remote events but their insights apply here as well: when writing a narrative of a past event, the use of the present tense gives the reader a more immediate sense of involvement. Newspaper headlines are narrative hooks to draw the reader into a story, not purely descriptive text.

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It is for mere attraction only.

Suppose you appear for an exam and the results are published a month later. The result says that You pass with distinction and not You passed with distinction. Actually the case is you passed a month ago, nevertheless you would like to hear it in present tense.

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