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I am preparing a book for publication which contains the following passage:

Stromberg in Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth-Century England (1954) noted that 'the critical moment in the emergence of a positive spirit of reform...consisted in the awareness of evil as being social and remediable. It begins about 1750.'

My proof reader (my wife) has picked this out suggesting it should be the past tense. However if I say It began about 1750 it seems to convey too much certainty about the exact date. I just want to convey an impression of it being something which emerges in the mid-eighteenth century. I believe use of the present tense is the way to go.

But what is this artifice called, this use of the present to convey mild uncertainty?

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    Why do you believe that about doesn't give you the vagueness you seek?
    – bib
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 13:11
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    Your proofreader might have missed the closing quotation mark. :)
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 13:47
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    I don't think there's any hint of uncertainty in the tense.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 13:56
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    @KenWilliams As you rightly point out, this is not my work, but that of an author called Stromberg. I think there is no doubt that begins is apt, because it will not have been something that happened across society in a moment. The whole is in quotation marks in my piece, so I do not intend to change what he said. But I do see what you mean, and it may have been better had he said the transition begins. But I defend his use of moment as metaphorical. Clearly it didn't happen in an instant.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 22:54
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    I don't think the historical present casts things in a tentative light, at least not in historical narratives in academic style. It confers a kind of immediacy upon the past event; it is a sort of reportage that puts the audience there at the scene, so to speak, as events unfold. In literary works it can produce an entirely different effect, a kind of liminal state or dreaminess in which the narrator "disappears" and the events seem to take on a life of their own, as a tableau vivant.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 22:55

1 Answer 1

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This is called the historic present. It is also called historical present, dramatic present, narrative present, or praesens historicum in Latin. It is a perfectly fine construction, although it should be used in moderation so as not to draw the ire of style books.

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    Excellent, thank you. It has persuaded my wife. Congratulations.
    – WS2
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 14:32
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    It's a fine construction. It does not convey the sense of uncertainty you seem to be seeking, though. All it does is temporarily place the listener in the past. To my ears, both your options have the same uncertainty. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 19:24
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    @WS2: I take it that is a rare occurrence? I should congratulate you, probably! Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 20:57
  • Historic present comes up on the Lexicon Valley podcast. I recommend listening to it. Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 18:56
  • "It should be used in moderation" -- unless your name is Damon Runyon.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 0:02

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