One of my recent online exchanges centered around the choice of verb tenses for telling a story. Do we narrate an event in the present or the past? The learner who raised this question had just learned about the use of the simple present to make a narrative seem more exciting and real, as if the action were unfolding right before the listener’s eyes. It took several exchanges to strengthen this learner’s grasp on when this shift in verb tenses is appropriate.
This kind of question certainly requires a look at grammar beyond the sentence level. I offered some models, such as clips from performances by comedian Bill Cosby, who skillfully recalls moments from his past with humor to entertain all ages. As I gave the matter more thought, I began to compile a list of other possible models. For you and for me, I will keep this list handy for the next time I need to illustrate this grammar point. The range of contexts should enable us to choose the one model that best suits the given learner’s age and interests.
- The story of Swan Lake in the film Billy Elliot. The simple present is used to tell a familiar tale, the plot of the famous ballet.
- Bill Cosby on Understanding Children. The simple present is used for facts, general habits, and humorous past acts.
- “A man goes into a seafood restaurant…” joke posted on Smilezilla. The simple present is used to tell a humorous story.
- The First Case, a joke posted on Reader’s Digest (joke page). The simple present is used to tell a humorous story.
- Marty McFly recalling Doc’s accident in Back to the Future. The simple past is used to tell the sequence of events that led to Doc’s idea for time travel. This scene nicely contrasts with any of the previous models.
“ST001: Fig. 2.1”
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