I've been translating a commentary to a history documentary and I'm not sure if my choice of tenses is optimal. In Polish, just like in English, the Present Simple tense is occasionally used for describing past events, to add to the dramatic effect and bring the audience closer to the past events.

Here is where my issue comes from: In Polish, using the Present Simple to describe past events in a documentary is pretty much just a matter of free choice - stylistically, there are no hard norms. There is no "Golden standard" so you have lots of docs where the commentary is predominantly Past Simple and lots of docs where the commentary is mostly Present Simple.

What about the English documentaries? Is Present Simple much more popular in commentaries? Let's say there is a sentence describing German soldiers marching into Warsaw in 1939. Which version is be more likely to be used:

In 1939, German soldiers march into Warsaw


In 1939, German soldiers marched into Warsaw

I know these two sentences are completely correct and can be both used. My question is: which way of describing events in a documentary is more popular and closer to the "commentary standard" if such thing exists :)

Thank you for your feedback!

  • The present march makes for a film that is more alive, inviting the viewer to feel it now. The past marched looks back and says: They did this then, and we look at it this way now. Use the past in a film when you contrast and contrast it with the present. – Yosef Baskin Oct 26 '20 at 20:45
  • As far as I know, there doesn't seem to be a standard for this, but using the present tense does heighten the dramatic effect of the commentary and is also seen in American history documentaries. – General Poxter Oct 26 '20 at 20:49
  • The year is 1916, armies are bogged down in trenches in France, the winter comes... etc. This tense is call the historical present: thoughtco.com/historical-present-verb-tense-1690928 – Greybeard Oct 30 '20 at 19:27

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