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Is it possible to use the present tense along with an adverbial of the past time?

(1) It is May 12th, 1959, when I'm introduced to Janey.

This is a transcript of the movie "Watchmen." And you can hear the movie sound here.

Is it really natural or even grammatical to use the present tense "am" along with the adverbial "May 12th, 1959" as in (1)?

Since it's a cleft sentence, you should be able to change it to:

(2) I'm introduced to Janey on May 12th, 1959.

OR

(3) On May 12th, 1959, I'm introduced to Janey.

If (1)'s natural, how about (2) and (3)?

EDIT

I'd like to make it clear that I do understand the use of the present tense for the past time in a narrative setting. The question really is not about the use of the present tense itself but the use of the present tense along with the past-time adverbial.

Is it okay to use the present tense along with the past-time adverbial when you describe the past time in a narrative setting?

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3 Answers 3

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You need to understand that "Watchmen" [sic] is a film with a very particular mood throughout. Although set in the past, the language throughout is immediate; present tense. The author is trying to bring the audience into the time; not through flashbacks or memories, but as though you were there, then.

The whole mood is retro, but even more so. It's very powerful in that respect (not to mention many others...)

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  • So in that sort of "Watchmen" mood, are (2) and (3) also natural?
    – JK2
    Jul 21, 2016 at 10:52
  • (2) and (3) are not as evocative of the period as the original sentence. Watch a few postwar private detective movies and you will see that this type of phrasing is common: like entries in a private detective's notebook.
    – JavaLatte
    Jul 21, 2016 at 11:13
  • @JavaLatte So are you saying that (2) and (3) are not natural or even grammatical?
    – JK2
    Jul 21, 2016 at 12:26
  • @JK2: that's not what JavaLatte is saying. Understand "not as evocative of the period" to mean, "does not contribute so well to the retro mood of the film". It doesn't mean that they grammatically fail to specify the time of the introduction to Janey. They're both grammatical and IMO about as natural-sounding as the original. JavaLatte is only saying that (1) is most fitting for the style/genre that Watchmen is using. Jul 21, 2016 at 13:15
  • @SteveJessop Thanks for answering. Since you say that it's grammatical to use the present tense with an adverbial of the past time, could you show me some examples of such sentences? Preferably taken from a grammar book or something of that nature.
    – JK2
    Jul 21, 2016 at 14:51
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Yes, it is okay to use the present tense along with past-time adverbials when you describe past time in a narrative setting. It is the historical present. It can also be called the storytelling present and narrative present. Jokes also often use the present tense. The use of the present tense gives the sense of immediacy.

Such uses can include adverbials of time (which talk about past time) treated in the present tense:

Yesterday, John goes into a bar. He orders a drink. He begins a conversation before leaving. He forgets to pay.

Source" As Time Goes by: Tense and Universal Grammar - Page 199

"It is a bright summer day in 1947. My father, a fat, funny man with beautiful eyes and a subversive wit, is trying to decide which of his eight children he will take with him to the county fair. My mother, of course, will not go. She is knocked out from getting most of us ready: I hold my neck stiff against the pressure of her knuckles as she hastily completes the braiding and the beribboning of my hair. . . ."

Alice Walker, "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self." In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Brace, 1983. (Cited here.)

and

Two weeks before Christmas Malachy and I come home from school in a heavy rain and when we push in the door we find the kitchen empty...

from Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt (cited here.)

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  • The Wikipedia reference you cited doesn't have any example sentence where the historical present is accompanied by a past-time adverbial. Could you corroborate your answer with some authoritative source?
    – JK2
    Jul 21, 2016 at 12:29
  • @JK2 Edited to include three examples. The first is from a book published by MIT Press, the second from actual uses in writing. Jul 21, 2016 at 17:09
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  • I decide to answer this question at 11:26 AM on July 21, 2016.
  • Some time having elapsed, it is 11:27 AM when I write the second sentence.
  • At 11:28 AM I conclude my third sentence.

All of these statements are grammatically sound, factually accurate, and fully understandable at the time I make them. The date and times are present-time adverbials, as they describe the present as I write them. The sentences do feel a bit affected (and thus unnatural by one definition of the word), as I am not in the habit of stream-of-consciousness, real-time narration of my life.

I imagine that someone else reading my statements, at some time in the future, might also be struck by a sense of "unnaturalness" since by then, the present-time adverbials of my first three sentences will appear to be past-time adverbials (as, in fact, they already do, as I write this at 11:31 AM). Despite any sense of dislocation when read in the future, this sentence will still be as grammatically sound as when I first write it at 11:33 AM.

These "flexible" adverbials of time are also used outside of true, real-time present tense: writers using the present tense can "project" the narrative voice into the past, using a date or time which would be "past" in the real-world present as a present-time adverbial in their constructed present.

When I search for the phrase "It's noon when I" in Google Books, I find many, many recent examples of the use of the present tense with a time stamp. This suggests to me that it is a natural construction for those who are comfortable with narrating in the eternal now. However, adverbials of time that are inherently "past" are not common: when I look for "it's yesterday when I" I only get three hits, none of which really fit the present-tense narration style.

Note that the sense of wrongness associated with this style can abate as one gets used to reading the literary present-tense; it has been used for some time to describe fiction, and in recent years this ersatz-real-time style is becoming more popular as a device for writing fiction. Although its use in narrative is still controversial stylistically (and I personally dislike it intensely), I cannot find complaints that it is ungrammatical (though, of course, it is difficult to prove a negative).


TL;DR: The present tense can be used with time adverbials that are ambiguous (changing from future to present to past as time passes) such as specific dates and times. However, it generally is not used with inherently past-time adverbials such as yesterday or last year. Your sentences are examples of the former.

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  • Thanks for your answer and the links. It's interesting to note that the Vanderbilt writing guide recommends using the past tense for those sentences having a past adverbial and using the present tense for those not having a past adverbial, be the past adverbial inherently past or not.
    – JK2
    Jul 22, 2016 at 0:40

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