There is some fun in the news about the 'historical present' – "King James comes to London for the first time... Gladstone gives his budget speech and drinks a mixture of wine and raw eggs to refresh himself" – with pundits and media personalities taking sides (Eg. "John Humphrys labels Melvyn Bragg pretentious for his use of grammar").

This is a growing and controversial subject, and I should admit immediately that I dislike, not the tense itself; it's just a grammatical option, but the motivations underlying its usage. In other words, I understand its appeal, and for that reason think it over-used. But it has uses: the increasingly widespread appearance of the historical present in, for example, popular history and filmed narration definitely has a justification, though some major drawbacks. On paper its advantages are fewer, and in some respects it seems to me a retrograde step that sacrifices cool distance (the simple past is very cold, very far off) for warmth and immediacy.

That it is well-established is quite true, but it belongs to oral narration, which is almost theatre, and makes the transition to the printed page with great difficulty. Compare, for example, Anstey's classic late Victorian sentimental recitiation, "Burglar Bill of Pentonville" (1888), which employs this tense to natural effect ("Reely, Miss, you must excoose me!"/ Says the Burglar with a jerk"), to the Ahlberg's loosely derivative book of 1977, Burglar Bill, where it becomes an embarrassment ("When he comes to the first house he climbs in through the bathroom window and shines his torch around"), partly because it is applied with so little variation, an error that Anstey scrupulously avoids.

Of course, on television and on film the viewer may reasonably wish for the lively presentation made possible by the historical present. However, by bringing the viewpoint so close to each element in a sequential narrative the identification of any but simple causal relations between them adjacent pairs is weakened. This is a very substantial disadvantage, suggesting that the benefits, which are real, are dearly bought.

The presenter, for his or her part, will be drawn to the historical present not only because it pleases their viewers, a reasonable motive after all, but because it places the events under consideration at the same temporal nexus as the narrator; in other words, the narrator describes the event as if it were unfolding in real time simultaneously with his own utterance, as if he were a super-observer, not merely present, though this is an important consideration, but actually within the event or its persons. This lends a specious authenticity to the account, and pre-emptively counters scepticism by implicitly asserting that this is a participatory witness statement, though paradoxically made simultaneously from all points of view: "The King strides into the Commons... The ] members observe him with a mixture of shock and disdain". This is a striking ploy, but hardly creditable, and all the more suspicious for its undeniable power. Indeed, to be blunt it is not a candid way to discuss history, and leaves the recipient far too little room for criticism. Careful writers will avoid it.