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The cover of a record by the Smiths

English-language newspapers have a strange, rarely talked about convention for their picture captions: they use a sort-of-continuous-present tense.

The event has already happened, the photograph already taken, yet the caption frames this scene in the present tense.

Here’s what I mean, in half a dozen captions plucked from the main section of the Sunday Times newspaper a week ago. Those present-tense verbs are in bold:

  1. “Creighton, far left, talks to a voter, while O’Connell has her leaflets at the ready” (page 12)
  2. “Michael Healy-Rae, centre, meets voters; below, Danny Healy-Rae talks to our reporter” (page 13)
  3. “Gannon and his team take to the streets to drum up support” (page 14)
  4. “Adams meets his young admirers on the campaign trail in Mounttown” (page 14)
  5. “A model for the Dolce & Gabbana fashion house shows off an example of ‘trapper chic’ at men’s fashion week in Milan last month” (page 18)
  6. “Jon Walters celebrates a Republic of Ireland goal” (page 4)

As you may have guessed, the stories are from the newspaper’s Irish edition. But concentrate on the verbs, look at the present tense. We hardly notice it. It’s “natural”, taken for granted. We’d probably wince if all these captions were turned into a past tense.

As for the main text of articles, feature stories in print journalism seem to revel in this constant present. As in:

We’re sitting in the bar of Fade Street Social, sipping our third Slippery Slope cocktail when Roddy Doyle bounds through the door…

What’s with this obsession with the present tense (and, while we’re at it, with the royal “we”) in these feature pieces? I’ve no problem with it in fiction, so am I being too picky about it in newspaper reports?

Or is the constant present tense simply a reflection of our times, of our current addictive impulse to make everything sound here and now, live and streaming, on tap and on demand, instant, “presently” (when what we really mean is “currently”), happening right now before our eyes? Even though what that pictured caption is really doing is documenting a scene that has already happened in front of someone else’s eyes, days ago, just as the photograph on the page is a record of something in the past, not a live video feed of the present moment?

This “ever-present-tenseness” is everywhere. It’s not just the tense of the picture caption or feature writer. It’s the tense of the rap artist, of the stand-up comedian (“This man walks into a pub and…”), and of those voiceovers in documentaries and “reality TV” (“Meanwhile back at the check-in desk, Siobhan has an angry passenger bound for Palma…”).

And, yes, it’s the tense of the younger generation.

Don’t get me wrong – their language is no better or worse than their elders’. But it still irritates and confuses me, what with its strange emphases and its “uptalk” or “upspeak” at the end of sentences – aka HRT (high-rise terminals) – as all life becomes what sounds like a river of questions in a stream-of-consciousness present…

So, we’re like, on the Luas, right? And we’re going past the Smithfield stop and getting near that place that’s like a museum, OK? And this guy comes over giving us all kinds of grief and basically tells Sophie to give him her mobile or else, and he’s like trying to take it off her, and Sophie would literally die without her mobile phone, so she’s like, ‘No ****ing way?’ So he’s raging, and Jack tells him to stop acting the maggot or he’ll give him a thump, and Sophie says she’ll call the guards, which she does too and…

… and all delivered in that high-speed Vicky Pollard (Little Britain) fashion, and it’s so… random.

But back to that much older convention, the present tense in those newspaper captions. Why do they do it? I’m not sure. To conjure up an immediacy, a vividness that would otherwise be lacking in the picture, to encourage us to “see” the scene?

Sometimes, though, the artifice shines through. Page one of the same edition of the Sunday Times last week had the following caption:

  • “A supporter shelters Joan Burton who was out campaigning in the rain in Kilkenny yesterday”

A dizzy moment, in which the ever-present tense (“shelters”) unravels into the past continuous (“who was out campaigning”) with a “yesterday” thrown in for good measure, and suddenly I am – or strictly speaking I was – completely lost.

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