I read this in a grammar book recently but I can't recall what the specific term (if any) is called for something like:

He was 18 years old.

I don't remember if it is the same example, but the idea is generally similar. The text is written in past tense, so the example above should also be written in past tense. However, since he is currently 18 years old, not formerly 18 years old, the grammar book stated that it should be written as:

He is 18 years old.

Even though the text is written in past tense. Again, the example might be incorrect and my recollection might be a bit off, but the general idea is there.

  • I don't know if your question is complete enough to answer, but I'd suggest you're thinking of the past progressive, aka past continuous, tense: see grammarmudge.cityslide.com/articles/article/1029424/8972.htm for examples. – JEL Aug 2 '15 at 7:18
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    How do you know if he’s currently 18 years old? What happens in a year? Will they have to rewrite the text because now he’s not currently 18 years old anymore? I think I understand the notion you’re referring to, but your example is highly confusing (and the reasoning behind it even more so). A more easily understandable example might be something like, “He gave a cry of shock—which isn’t surprising for someone who’d just been woken up by a scream—and scrambled out of bed”. Is that what you’re talking about? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 2 '15 at 17:05
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    Direct and Indirect speech, or backshifting? – Mari-Lou A Aug 2 '15 at 17:40
  • related: “He didn't know where New Jersey was” – Mari-Lou A Aug 2 '15 at 17:45

I think you are referring to present tense narration:

  • When the literary historians of the year 3000 write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive—and, perhaps, problematic—feature. Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. In 1987, Robie Macauley and George Lanning dubbed it “the most frequent cliché of technique in the new fiction,” and since then, it’s appeared with even greater frequency. Although there are signs that its use is diminishing among established writers, it’s becoming the default choice for many younger writers.

—By David Jauss


    1. Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense. Past-tense narration is of course “immediate” in a way, since the events of the characters’ past are happening in the reader’s present. (Read more)


    1. Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time. Altering chronological order and varying duration both work against the primary purpose of present tense, which is to create the feeling that something’s happening now. (Read more)


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  • Your answer does not comply with the question. What your answer boils down to is that you have a situation in the past, which is described with the present tense (e.g. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, which is set in Tudor times). What John is actually asking is a term when you have been using the past tense all the time and suddenly use a present tense once. I would call that an anachronism. – Joost Kiefte Aug 2 '15 at 8:19
  • @Joost - I don't think so, anyway I suggest you post an answer if you think that 'anachronism' is the right term, – user66974 Aug 2 '15 at 9:19
  • Could you elaborate on why you don't think so? – Joost Kiefte Aug 2 '15 at 10:39
  • @JoostKiefte - that is what I understand from the question. Unfortunately OP in not clear enough about what he is looking for. – user66974 Aug 2 '15 at 10:53

If you are establishing background facts in the past that are still true at the time of narration, it's usual to express them in the present.

If you say "I had a friend who was 18 and lived on Chairman Mao street, which was close to my home etc.", you are slightly implying that most of those aren't facts anymore: you may have lost the friend, they may not be 18 anymore, the street may have been renamed, and so on.

However, if the expression is a messy mixture of facts of which only some have changed since, or you're uncertain if they're still true, it's not necessary to go back and forth setting every individual one in the "right" tense. It's often okay to leave them in the past if changing them to the present would be awkward.

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I couldn't quite get the question but anyway I'll suggest something. If say you narrate a story to me which happened yesterday with your 18 year old brother, you should use He is 18. The case it to be WAS can be when narrating something happened a long time ago.

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I would respectfully suggest the word anachronism or its brethren under 2.

Farlex Free Online Dictionary: 1. a person or a thing remaining or appearing after its own time period; archaism. 2. an error in chronology. Also called antichronism. — anachronistic, anachronistical, anachronous, adj.

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  • Why the negative vote? Please explain! – Joost Kiefte Aug 6 '15 at 11:49

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