linguistic feud

Melvyn Bragg and John Humphrys in tense standoff on Radio 4

The linguistic feud between the broadcasters John Humphrys and Melvyn Bragg peaked on Monday afternoon as the pair attempted to settle a simmering question: should the present tense be used to talk about the past?

As Humphrys made clear on Sunday, he is very much in the no corner, having chastised Bragg for using the so-called historic present on his Radio 4 show In Our Time. “It gives a bogus, an entirely bogus, sense of immediacy; it is irritating, it is pretentious,” Humphrys said.

But speaking on the World at One, with presenter Edward Stourton presiding over the two warring Radio 4 factions, Bragg (who unfortunately for Humphrys was not on holiday as he had hoped) took the opportunity to diplomatically defend his corner.

“I don’t do it very much; we’ve checked and only occasionally when the academics are in that mode I’ll say ‘and after that experiment he goes on to do such and such’. But I don’t use it in my intro and segues and so on,” said Bragg, adding that the tense had been used on his programme for more than 20 years to make events seem more vivid. “It’s good that you’ve caught up, John,” he added, laughing.

Bragg said the use of the tense had drifted in and out of the English language for hundreds of years and was keen to point out it was still commonly used by teaching academics. “I think John’s at the heart of a continuing and very important argument that’s being going on for centuries about what constitutes the best English,” he added.

"Some of the best academics in this country – and sometimes the best academics in the world – a lot of them are using this. Now they must think it is useful for them and their students because they are all teaching academics; it’s not my job to be the policeman and say: ‘stop using it, you can’t go down that street; I direct you to go to the street over there’.


“That’s not my job; my job is to help them to say, with the best of my ability, what they’ve come there to say, which is important.”

Humphrys, however, was not to be convinced. On Sunday the historic present was irritating and pretentious. By Monday it had been elevated to confusing and daft. “I completely reject the idea that it makes it more vivid, I do genuinely think it makes it more confusing,” he said adamantly.

“To say Shakespeare buys a house in Stratford is not fine because he bought it an awfully long time ago. The imagery in his plays lives on – you only have to read the plays to see that and appreciate it. But he bought that – that was an action way in the past and it contributes nothing. It doesn’t make it more immediate to say he buys a house, when we know he didn’t. It’s more confusing. It’s daft, I think.”

Humphrys was also highly affronted at Stourton’s characterisation of his position as “fogeyish”. “I’m completely not fogeyish when it comes to the things Melvyn was talking about,” he said… “I love street language, I love the fact that my son – my youngest son who is 14 – will say things to me and I have to say: ‘what does that mean? where did that come from?’. I love every bit of that.”

Humphrys said he only took particular exception to the use of the tense because of its innate academic pretension, which left “ordinary Joes” such as himself feeling like “oiks” and denied he had ever knowingly used it in his long career as a journalist.

“Melvyn’s programme is magnificent, and when they [academics] do that they are excluding ordinary Joes and it’s because they want to exclude us,” he said. “I think they want to say ‘we’re rather special, you’re just a bunch of oiks’- I mean that’s slightly exaggerating.”

While no side was declared a winner in the great grammar battleground, Humphrys and Bragg instead reached a friendly truce. They did, however, agree on one thing. “Historic or historical?” Stourton put to them both. “I would say historic,” answered Bragg. “So would I,” added Humphrys. Peace at last. … er-radio-4