When discussing a pivotal event that happened in the past, whether 5 minutes ago or 50 years ago, sportscasters often use the historical present tense. For example, after an error we might hear, "If he catches that ball, the inning is over." Or, "if Babe Ruth stays with Boston, the Yankees don't win all those pennants."

A similar usage seems to occur when discussing battles and wars: "If Stonewall Jackson survives, the South wins at Gettysburg."

Is there an explanation for this phenomenon of language?

  • do you mean while showing a replay? – Charles Sep 11 '12 at 20:11
  • @Charles It's used outside of replay scenarios as well. – Dave Newton Sep 11 '12 at 20:16
  • That sounds weird. Really, they talk that way? Weird, like talking in the third person about yourself. – Mitch Sep 11 '12 at 20:35
  • Are you sure it's just battles and wars (and sports)? Seems like any historical reminiscing about fate could use that language: "If Bill Gates doesn't meet Paul Allen at Harvard, he's not the richest man in the world." "If Pete Best plays a little better with the Beatles, nobody's ever even heard of Ringo Starr." – J.R. Sep 11 '12 at 23:14

Keeping away from language in general for now, I can state that the use of the present tense makes things feel more immediate to English-language listeners. Thus it is used to create a sense of action and dynamism. Very often when telling a story, especially on a theme like sports, in which a certain dynamic tension is essential for effectively conveying the teller's experience, storytellers use the historic present for this reason. Often this tense is used without deliberation, instinctively, to gain impact.

Spanish, and I suspect other romance languages as well, make heavy use of the historical present for narrative as well.

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It is an example of the erosion of the conditional in popular speech. The reason probably has to do with the fact that a true conditional statement just takes too many words for a sports announcer to say:

If he would have caught that ball, he would certainly have gotten into the end zone.

That (together with variations like "Had he caught ..." and so on) also probably sounds fussy and over-particular to an audience of more or less intoxicated sports fans. Much easier to say

If he catches that ball, he's in the end zone.

It's simple, direct, and has a manly feel to it, making it perfect for sports. And as the language of sports is popular and omnipresent, it becomes a big driver for the language in general. Don't look for it to go away anytime soon.

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    I beg to differ. The pattern doesn't occur only in rushed vernacular but also in prepared speeches and certainly in writing. It is simple and direct, and that is what causes it to have more psychological impact. It grips the listener or reader. If the thing is appropriate, I do not see how it can be said to be an erosion. – Ryan Haber Sep 11 '12 at 20:19
  • @Ryan: I don't see where we differ. Did you read the sentence where I say "It's simple, direct, and has a manly feel to it"? Also, I'm old enough to remember first noticing this usage in the context of sports broadcasts. – Robusto Sep 11 '12 at 20:22
  • @Ryan: Also, perhaps you don't understand how I am using the word erosion. I just mean that the true conditional, using past tense with a modal, is disappearing from our language in general. – Robusto Sep 11 '12 at 21:47
  • I should expect you've seen the historical present since you were a child. Dickens' characters - especially his working class and poorer characters - use it as a mainstay of their speech. If this is a sign of the erosion of the conditional, then the conditional has been eroding for some time now. – Ryan Haber Sep 21 '12 at 20:01

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