Why Do Sportscasters Use the Historical Present?

A Blog About Language
July 1 2014 3:38 PM

Why Do Sportscasters Use the Historical Present?

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They celebrate. They hug.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Like newspaper headlines and personal anecdotes (So I'm walking down the street yesterday, and this guy comes up to me and he says ...), sportscasting has a special affinity for the present tense. But unlike other uses of the historical present—which typically refer to past events, thus "historical" present—the sports announcer is calling a game that is playing out before our very eyes. If ever there were an appropriate time to use the present, surely this is it. So what's so strange about it?

Let's compare the sportscaster example with a different circumstance in which it might make sense to talk about kicking. Say you and a friend are inside and you hear a thudding sound against the wall. Your friend asks about the noise, so you look out the window and report back: "Some kid is kicking a ball." It's a present action and yet it would sound strange in this situation for you to say: "Some kid kicks a ball." On the other hand, if you're commenting on your kid's soccer match, and you want to sound like Ian Darke, you're much more likely to use the simple present: "Louise gets the pass, she dribbles past a defender, she kicks the ball … gooooal!"

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Both "Louise kicks the ball" and "Louise is kicking the ball" are present tense, of course. But what makes the sportscaster present remarkable isn't tense. It's a distinction known as aspect, which refers to the period over which an action takes place. The "is kicking" construction has progressive aspect, because it refers to an event that unfolds over time, whereas "kicks" is the older, simpler form that is used for a variety of purposes, including habits ("Be careful—that horse kicks" does not mean the horse is necessarily kicking right now) and verbs of thought or emotion (I think I'll kick the ball).

Based on how these two aspects are normally used in English, we might expect sportscasters to say "He's passing the ball," since the events being described are ongoing. But they don't. They typically say "He passes," which in another context would refer to the general disposition of a player rather than a specific pass. Why?

At some level, it's a matter of tradition and what people expect an announcer to sound like, and no doubt efficiency is a factor. But ultimately it's the same reason that the simple present is often used in jokes and stories. There's a certain vividness to it that's just lacking for more convoluted verb forms. It puts us out on the field, striding along with Clint Dempsey and Team USA as they run, kick, pass, shoot, and, we hope, score.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

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