Here is the script of a dialogue between the presenter Lucy Worsley and Alexandra Loske, from the University of Sussex, talking about Princess Charlotte's laboring

Lucy: He's talking here about a uterine discharge "of a dark green colour. That doesn't sound good.

Alexandra: No, this is a sign that the baby is in distress or already dead. It means the baby has been so badly affected by the process of labour, that it starts pooing in the womb and then swallowing this substance.

Alexandra and Lucy reads text together: Eventually, Charlotte does give birth, after 50 hours of labour. The baby is stillborn. They rub his body with salt and mustard but no animation was ever restored.

Lucy: That must have been so frustrating. He was legitimate, he'd come to term, he was the right gender, but then it all went wrong.

Alexandra: Exactly, this was the most important baby in the whole of Great Britain.

Lucy: And the mother seems to have survived, doesn't she?

Alexandra: She's doing reasonably well. She's quite composed and says 'Well, if this is God's will, then, that's it. And she feels tired, she wants to rest and at midnight Charlotte started complaining about a singing in her ears and she feels unwell, she throws up. and very tragically, she dies at about 2:30 in the morning'

At the beginning of the dialogue Lucy uses present tense talking about the matter or a situation. After reading a historical text written by Sir Richard Croft, she suddenly changed the tense from present to past. The dialogue turns from situation to history. Alexandra follows the suit. And then out of a sudden, she changes the tense back to present again. Why does she do so? What's so special about the sentence that she is using past tense?

Strangely, there are two tenses in one sentence

They rub his body with salt and mustard but no animation was ever restored.


The whole dialogue can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SN5XQk9Cr6k

  • 1
    Would it be more helpful on the ELL site? Really, in English, tense is a mess in these ridiculously complex situations where you are comment[at]ing on a video, showing present/historic mix, etc etc. Simply, if there are places the tense "is wrong" - well you're 100% correct. It's wrong.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 7:45
  • 2
    Sometimes, authors in particular use the 'historical present' (the present used unexpectedly, where the past would be expected). This article by Gretchen McCulloch mentions that sports commentators also make free with this device. 'Grammar books [state] that we can use the present simple tense in place of the past tense for dramatic effects, and examples of this use are many on the National Geographic channel' is put forward at Wordreference. Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 8:00
  • @JoeBlow May I suggest you read the article which Edwin Ashworth cites. If the 'historical present' is 'wrong', it has been wrong for a very long time.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 9:13
  • Hi WS2. It's certainly possible to use the "historical present". The quoted example by TV newscasters is technically known as "an utter shambolick mess" :-) Certainly, a very keen editor could completely re-write that passage, carefully using historical-present. You are quite right that if the OP is "unaware" of historical-present-like usages, there you go. (As you know, in some languages eg french, there is are arcane, difficult-for-teenage-students very accurate tense structure thingies for "talking of the past in literary future' etc., eh !!)
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 9:42

1 Answer 1


The first usage of the present tense here is not a historical present. It's the normal usage of the present to describe events and states that are regularly or often true. To illustrate this you could insert a couple of 'generally's into the main clauses of those sentences and they would still read perfectly fine:

Alexandra: No, this is generally a sign that the baby is in distress or already dead. It generally means the baby has been so badly affected by the process of labour, that it starts pooing in the womb and then swallowing this substance.

So here Alexandra's not directly talking about that individual case of green uterine discharge, but about the phenomenon in general.

The next instance of the present simple is when the author is going through the sequence of events in the story. Eventually Charlotte does give birth ... .We often use the present tense for the plots of stories or sequences of events that are seen in some sense as permanent. What happens in a joke or a film can in some sense be seen as being a fixed ordering of events which never changes. We tend to use present tenses, therefore, when we're working through the plots of films and books or talking about history and so forth. We're just rolling mechanically through the different stages. 1. they meet 2. they get married ... or Germany invades Poland in March 1939. One month later in April, Italy invades Albania ...

This is slightly different from, for example, the dramatic present, which is when a narrative switches to the present to make it more immediate, more real. So he squares up to me, and looks me straight in the eyeballs all trembling and spluttering like a ...

At the point that Lucy then departs from using the present tense, she's no longer running through this fixed sequence of events. The sentence she switches to the past with is:

  • That must have been so frustrating.

Now it's clear that this isn't one of the events as laid out in the fixed pattern of the text under discussion. Now that she's no longer summarising the 'plot', she can no longer continue to use the present simple. The sentence above is a speculation about the feelings of the woman concerned, it's not written in the text, and it isn't part of the story as codified in the document. Notice that Lucy has no choice here she cannot say: That must be so frustrating with the meaning that it must have been frustrating for that woman then at that time. If we use the present tense here it can only mean something like It must be frustrating when something like that happens to you. So now that she's entered this speculative run, she uses the normal canonical past tense here. Notice that the next three clauses are not part of a chronological sequence:

He was legitimate, he'd come to term, he was the right gender ...

The conversation then reverts to the actual narration again and resumes with the historical present. I have no idea why that blip in the last paragraph occurs with Charlotte started. I assume it's just that, a blip. After all the participants in the conversation are talking, which is a largely unplanned and spontaneous activity.

The tense usage in the excerpt as a whole, is not messy or unmotivated. The tenses used reflect the function of the language at each stage of the conversation.

  • Re the blip: Since this is supposed to be dialogue spoken on the fly by the characters, it's realistic to assume that they wouldn't always choose their words carefully. When speaking casually, people frequently slip up on the proper tenses, and make other grammar errors. So dialogue writers can get away with quite a bit.
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 17:01
  • @Barmar Yes, I quite agree :) Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 21:07
  • How about Alexandra's 'this was the most important baby in the whole of Great Britain.' She just followed Lucy's suit or it's a speculation? The baby was born. It's a real person. He was the most important baby except he didn't survive. How about this situation? Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 22:27
  • @wonmanfactory Well, I can't say for sure, I suppose we'd need to aske her. But I assume that yes, she's just following on talking about a past situation using a past tense. It's more of a description than a reentry into the working through the sequence of events - it seems to me :) Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 22:34

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