Past tense vs. present tense: Two first-person experiments

You know the difference between past tense and present tense. One tells it like it happened. The other tells it like it’s happening right now.

Until a few days ago, I didn’t realize that there was a big conflict between past and present tense. I didn’t realize that some people seem to hate present tense.

I won’t get into that debate here. Instead, I’d like to try some translating.

I’ve never translated from one tense to another. Until the other day, I’d never even considered it. At first glance, it seems that if something happened in the past, you’d have to tell it in the past. You couldn’t translate it into the present.

Turns out, that’s not really how it works, not in English anyway. In English, people speak in present tense all the time, usually when they’re telling a story. You might even be one of those people who tend to speak in present tense.

All that to say, here are two examples, my first two example in fact, of what it’s like to translate present to past tense and then past to present tense.

First-person present

I’m sitting right next to this guy, literally shoulder to shoulder. He says, “Hey, I think your shoe’s untied.”

I nod. “‘Preciate it.”

“By the way, I’m Ralph.” He says it like an American, not a German, and extends his hand.

We shake hands, and I tell him my name, you know, the normal meet-n-greet.

“So what do you do for a living?” he says.

Actually, I’m heading to Korea to teach English, but that’s not what I tell him. “I write… in first-person present, as if what you and I are doing right now happens while I type the page.”

First-person past

I was sitting right next to this guy, literally shoulder to shoulder. He said, “Hey, I think your shoe’s untied.”

I nodded. ” ‘Preciate it.”

“By the way, I’m Ralph.” He said it like an American, not a German, and extended his hand.

We shook hands, and I told him my name, you know, the normal meet-n-greet.

“So what do you do for a living?” he said.

Actually, I was heading to Korea to teach English, but that wasn’t what I told him. “I write… in first-person past, as if what you and I are doing right now happened before I typed the page.”

In this case, I started with present and then translated to past. This translation wasn’t too difficult. From what I can tell, almost everything in present tense converts to past pretty naturally. Surely there are situations where present tense can tell in a way that doesn’t translate directly to past tense, but I’ll have to leave that for another day because I can’t think of one now.

Going from past to present, though, seems more difficult. We’ll see.

First-person past

When I was about six years old, my dad worked at Sam’s Club. I thought the job was pretty cool, pushing carts around in the parking lot, helping customers with computers. Pop was a good sport, but I guess he didn’t think it was quite as cool as I did.

And he never appreciated the surround sound demo as much as I did either, except that he enjoyed letting me experience the, ahem, thrill.

Remember, this was back in the day when surround sound was the newest, coolest thing, back before high definition and all that. In fact, I think this was about the time they started calling it “home theater.”

Anyway, Pop let me stand in the middle of all these speakers and then he pushed the demo button. Whooosh! Cars flew by and so did the sound.

Frankly, though, I probably didn’t care much about the actual surround sound. I just liked watching the cars and hearing the engines and listening to Tom Cruise tell Robert Duvall that he was going to “drop the hammer.”

First-person present

I’m about six years old, and my dad works at Sam’s Club. I think the job’s pretty cool, pushing carts around in the parking lot, helping customers with computers. Pop is a good sport, but I guess he doesn’t think it’s quite as cool as I do.

And he doesn’t appreciate the surround sound demo as much as I do either, except that he enjoys letting me experience the, ahem, thrill.

Remember, this is back in the day when surround sound is the newest, coolest thing, back before high definition and all that. In fact, I think this is about the time they start calling it “home theater.”

Anyway, Pop lets me stand in the middle of all these speakers and then he pushes the demo button. Whooosh! Cars fly by and so does the sound.

Frankly, though, I’m not sure I care much about the actual surround sound. I just like watching the cars and hearing the engines and listening to Tom Cruise tell Robert Duvall that he is going to “drop the hammer.”

This second example, going from past to present, is much more forced, and I didn’t even do too much in the past tense that would make that transition difficult. It’s interesting, though, how it really matters which perspective you start from.

Which for which?

The benefit to present tense is immediacy. And I think it sounds more intimate too. The benefit to past tense is control and precision, especially when you start jumping around in time. Present tense, like real life, is a lot more linear. In present tense, memories stick out as memories, not just a jump through time in the story.

When it comes down to it, it’s good to use both. I’m going to have fun experimenting more like this.

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