Is it incorrect to write biographies in the present tense?

+12 votes

I keep tending to this and constantly have to go back and rewrite them!  But it usually is with a census date, such as: 'In 1851 the family is living at X and they now have 3 more children'.  OR 'In 1911 Hirzel is retired and living with his wife at 26 Sausmarez Street, St. Peter Port, Guernsey. One young female servant also lives with them.'

in Policy and Style by Judith Robinson G2G6 Mach 2 (21.9k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith

4 Answers

+21 votes
Best answer

Your use of the present tense to describe a past situation is accepted practice and actually has a name: the "historical present". It may be used to create an effect of immediacy. See

Although it apparently also has some detractors:


by Chase Ashley G2G6 Pilot (321k points)
selected by Cynthia Larson
I never knew that has a name!  It always strikes me as an annoying affectation, something you hear a lot on Ken Burns films.  Just my opinion.
Herbert, I had to laugh about "annoying affectations".

Using the present tense in genealogy doesn't bother me at all, but I cannot read a novel where all of the action is written the present tense. The fact that the author is writing in the present tense about something that obviously happened in the past prevents me from escaping into the story, and I have never been able to finish a novel that is written that way.

In genealogy, in the example as stated in Judith's example, it doesn't bother me at all.

Different strokes, Reba!  :)  Use of present tense in fiction usually doesn't bother me.  And I meant no knock on Burns's films, but when his experts go on in their historical present tense (oxymoron), I lose the ability to hear what they want to tell me.
+7 votes
by anonymous G2G6 Pilot (287k points)
+11 votes
Being in the middle of a genealogy writing class, it should be used sparingly. It wouldn't be acceptable for publication in a journal like NGS Quarterly or NEHGS Register but for yourself and here probably not an issue.
by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (556k points)
+6 votes
I very often slip into the present tense when I'm working straight from the church records - particularly the household records (like censuses, but continuously noting family events within a given period of time).

Birth records and death records tend to be written in the past tense (when they are not just in table form) and then I tend go along with that, even though I'm usually deep into the family story with them.
by Eva Ekeblad G2G6 Pilot (591k points)

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