Using El Presente to narrate past events

In Spanish, we can use El Presente to narrate events that occured in the past. These are the different situations when we would make this use of El Presente:

In written literature

This is a technique used in literature, in written texts. It is very common to use the Present tense in biographies or books that talk about historic events, this usage is called "El Presente histórico" or "El Presente narrativo".

Here are some examples:

Cristóbal Colón descubre América en 1492.
Christopher Columbus discovered (lit: discovers) América in 1492.

El 15 de abril de 1912 se hunde el Titanic.
On April 15th 1912 the Titanic sank. (lit: sinks)

Constantinopla cae en manos de los Otomanos en mayo de 1453.
Constantinople fell into Ottoman hands in May 1453. (lit: falls)

Using the present tense is a way of making the event feel closer to the present time at the moment of reading.

In newspapers

It is precisely to have this effect of being close in time that means it is also often used in newspapers both in headlines and the actual article. This makes the reader feel as if these events are "new and fresh", despite being in the past. 

For example:

Descubren una civilización maya bajo una selva de Guatemala.
Mayan civilization discovered under a Guatemalan jungle. (Lit: they discover)

El gobierno catalán pide explicaciones al ministro de Educación.
The Catalonian government asks the Education minister for explanations.

In colloquial narrative

When someone is narrating a story that happened in the past, we sometimes use El Presente in certain parts of the story when we want to make that bit more "interesting" by giving it dramatic effect

For example:

Ayer, mientras estábamos en el concierto, se escucha un ruido y la gente sale corriendo...
Yesterday, while we were at the concert, we heard (lit: hear) a noise and people (lit: start) started running...

...y Luisa me mira y me dice: ¡ven aquí rápido!
...and Luisa looks at me and says: come here quickly!

You might wonder why using El Presente in these contexts is considered higher-level when you learned about El Presente as a beginner. This is because the type of texts that use this narrative technique are nearly always advanced texts. 

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

El gobierno catalán pide explicaciones al ministro de Educación.
The Catalonian government asks the Education minister for explanations.


...y Luisa me mira y me dice: ¡ven aquí rápido!
...and Luisa looks at me and says: come here quickly!


Constantinopla cae en manos de los Otomanos en mayo de 1453.
Constantinople fell into Ottoman hands in May 1453. (lit: falls)


Ayer, mientras estábamos en el concierto, se escucha un ruido y la gente sale corriendo...
Yesterday, while we were at the concert, we heard (lit: hear) a noise and people (lit: start) started running...


El 15 de abril de 1912 se hunde el Titanic.
On April 15th 1912 the Titanic sank. (lit: sinks)


Descubren una civilización maya bajo una selva de Guatemala.
Mayan civilization discovered under a Guatemalan jungle. (Lit: they discover)


Cristóbal Colón descubre América en 1492.
Christopher Columbus discovered (lit: discovers) América in 1492.


Q&A Forum 2 questions, 2 answers

CarlC1Kwiziq community member

Why not use the English historical present in the translations of the Spanish examples?

I don't understand why the English translations of the historical present are not in the English historical present. For example, "Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dies in 2013." would be perfectly acceptable in a historical context. To use the past tense in the English examples is just confusing, since the point of the lesson is that the same tense exists in Spanish as well.

Asked 4 months ago
ShuiKwiziq team member

Hola Carl, 

While English does have a historical present, it is used much less frequently and in far fewer contexts than in Spanish. The majority of texts where Spanish uses El Presente Historico are not translated using the English present tense. We have chosen to translate this way for this reason but to also include the option of the literal translations.

Saludos

Shui

Why not use the English historical present in the translations of the Spanish examples?

I don't understand why the English translations of the historical present are not in the English historical present. For example, "Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dies in 2013." would be perfectly acceptable in a historical context. To use the past tense in the English examples is just confusing, since the point of the lesson is that the same tense exists in Spanish as well.

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AlanC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Present historic used in English

This device is often used in story telling and especially in jokes. E.g. "A man goes into a pub and asks the barman ......" It adds a freshness and immediacy to the narrative.

Asked 4 months ago
InmaKwiziq team member

Hi Alan

Yes, we also use it when telling jokes actually, exactly the same way, for example: "...y va el tío y le dice..." (...and the bloke goes and says...)

Inma

Present historic used in English

This device is often used in story telling and especially in jokes. E.g. "A man goes into a pub and asks the barman ......" It adds a freshness and immediacy to the narrative.

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