Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Present Tense

Present tense, I tell my students. Present tense. If you want to bring your audience into an important part of your life -- be it past, present, or future -- the present tense is your best friend.

Speaking or writing in the present brings a sense of immediacy. It helps your audience feel like they're at your side or on your shoulder as you relate your experiences.

Today I stumbled across a study that helps, in part, prove my thesis, though for some it might seem the proof is morally questionable. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Autonoma Unversity of Madrid, Spain, asked 153 students to write about their personal experiences with binge drinking, using either the past or present tense.

Here's what they found, according to Medicalxpress.com:
How we recall and communicate a past event influences future decisions, Dr. [Dolores] Albarracin explains.

Recalling a past instance of binge drinking can lead to intentions to repeat what one habitually does or what seems beneficial depending on what verb tense is used. Reliving the past of drinking excessively in the present tense (I am drinking) makes people use their past behavior as a guide for future intentions: Regardless of whether people drank a lot or abstained in the past, they intend to do the same in the future. Recalling the past in the past tense (I drank), however, leads to more abstract types of thought and thus forming intentions on the basis of how good or bad drinking seems.
The study suggests that alcoholics working in self-help groups would be better served by writing or speaking about their attitudes toward not drinking and making positive changes in behavior by doing so in the present tense, while writing about the negative aspects of their drinking in the past tense.

Their experiments showed that recollections in the present tense had "more concrete interpretation[s] and impact[s], while past tense recollections were more abstract."

So to expand this into writing or speaking in general: Present tense brings more concrete interpretations and I argue, more vivid recollection of detail and more passion to tell a compelling story, while the past tense is jsut a crutch used to get through an event quickly in order to meet the expectations of a recalled memory or moment -- I've seen this a lot in my English 106 class at BYU-Idaho these past few weeks. Those students who wrote in the present tense are showing, not telling, and getting better grades to boot.

What's interesting is that the study looked at the difficulty the participants had in writing about their experience from a mechanical/grammatical/workload point of view, and found that the difficulty their subjects encountered with the task of writing didn't have in impact on their recollections, no matter the tense they used.

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