There's a particular colloquial usage of the present tense in recounting past events that has a shade of meaning that I've been unable to put my finger on. As an example, instead of:

And then Bob said to her, "Sorry, I'm not going."


And then Bob says to her, "Sorry, I'm not going."

It seems to me that this expresses an attitude of mild disapproval toward the action recounted, by using the present tense. Further along the same spectrum might be:

And then Bob goes, "Sorry, I'm not going."

or even:

And then Bob is all like "Sorry, I'm not going."

What's a more linguistically sound way to describe what exactly is being encoded by this usage of the present tense?

  • 1
    Good question! Don May 6, 2016 at 13:45
  • The historical present is not for spoken language per se. It's for the language of narration. You are giving dialogue.
    – Lambie
    May 6, 2016 at 21:30

2 Answers 2


This is the historic present, sometimes called the narrative present.
To use it correctly, you first have to establish the time frame of the events, because it can be used this way in past, present or future - but in the two latter cases it's used in a different way.
Interestingly, some languages actually have a separate tense form for this, so in Swahili to you might say "Nilifika, nikakaa chini, nikakunywa chai, nikazugumza kidogo ..." = "I arrived, I sit down, I drink tea, I converse a little...". Here "li" marks the ordinary past tense, and thereafter "ka" is in the narrative tense.
In Swahili and similar languages, this is a rhetorical device, telling listeners there's more to come, and they don't interrupt until the speaker shows he's made his point.
In English the narrative present gives a sense of immediacy, inviting you to imagine the scene.
While he goes... and I'm like... are widespread, they tend to grate a little: doesn't the speaker know any synonyms for these words? But they do tend to keep the talk lively.

  • I'm not a huge fan of "he goes" and "I'm like", but one thing that I retained from my long-ago linguistics studies is the importance of maintaining the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive, as much as I'm tempted toward the latter. On occasion, though... May 6, 2016 at 14:14
  • This does a good job of answering what grammatical form this is. Is there a linguistically sound way of describing the mildly pejorative inference that this usage has on the sense of the sentence? May 6, 2016 at 20:32

There is a great difference between the "spoken word and the "written word". When speakig the author is present to deal with any query or misunderstanding. In written work it is always essential to convey the intended meaning.

Never - not even hardly ever - use the present tense (nor the first-person conjugation) in written work. It can lead you into verbosity.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.