The Grammarphobia Blog

Tense about the present

Q: I know languages tend to get simpler as they grow older, but there’s a recent subtraction from English that puzzles and irks me – the disappearance of the past, contrary-to-fact condition, at least in sports announcing. For example, “If he catches that pass, he scores easily.” Any thoughts?

A: This isn’t really contrary to fact, since it’s possible he could catch the pass. Here are three other ways you might write this sentence:

(1) “If he catches that pass, he’ll score easily.”

(2) “If he caught that pass, he’d score easily.”

(3) “If he were to catch that pass, he’d score easily.”

Perhaps sportscasters would feel #2 sounds a bit off when referring to a future catch. And maybe they’d find #3 a little too “literary.” If I were a sportscaster, I’d go with #1, but there’s really nothing wrong with the example you cite.

Broadcasters in general seem to like using the present tense for just about everything. You’ll notice this a lot in teasers for the TV news. The announcer will say (using what I think of as “headline-ese”) something like “Mom dies in leap from bridge – news at eleven!”

A similar kind of construction is sometimes used to replace not only the past tense but the future tense as well. It’s often called the “historical present,” a device used frequently in nonfiction writing and journalism.

I’ll invent a typical example: “Napoleon’s armies are starving. Snow blankets Moscow. The generals are wondering: Is retreat worse than annihilation?”

Here’s another: “Since losing his job on Wall Street, he finds himself in an untenable financial situation. What does he do? Does he sell his sinking stocks and take a loss, or does he stay the course and hope for a rally?”

Once you start to notice this, you’ll see it everywhere. Even in weather reports where it’s entirely inappropriate (“Tomorrow, rain is intermittent and temperatures are rising”). It can get disorienting, to say the least.

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