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I'm reading 大きな森の小さな家 (Little House in the Big Woods).

This sequence of sentences are all describing a particular occurrence in the past, but some sentences are in non-past forms:

ある晩、父さんは、ローラをベッドからだきあげると、まどのところへいって、おおかみを見せてくれた。

家のまん前に、二ひきすわっている。

まるで、毛のふさふさした犬みたいだ。

二ひきは、まぶしくかがやく大きな月に鼻先をむけると、ほえはじめた。

ジャックは、戸口の前にいったりきたりしながら、うなり声をあげる。

せなかの毛をさかだてて、するどい、じょうぶな歯を、おおかみにむかってむきだす。

おおかみは、いくらほえつづけても、家の中にははいれなかった。

すわっている、あげる、むきだす are all non-past.

The others - くれた、だ、はじめた、はいれなかった are all past.

Why are some in the non-past form?

If I'm writing or speaking about an event in the past like this, how would I decide when to use past and when to use non-past?

Thanks!

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This is a kind of rhetoric device called historical present. It's also found in English novels and news headlines, but typical Japanese novels use it extensively.

If I'm writing or speaking about an event in the past like this, how would I decide when to use past and when to use non-past?

This is a tough question, since this is about vividness, rhythm and mood, which you will gradually start to appreciate over years of learning a foreign language. Your example could have been written entirely in the past tense, although it might look like an old-fashioned, dull essay.

Still, it's possible to talk about rough tendencies.

  • The more dynamic a scene is, the more frequently historical present is employed (e.g., a battle scene).
  • Someone's internal thoughts or emotion tend to be described in historical present, although it's often hard to distinguish it from free direct speech, another type of technique to make sentences vivid. This is especially true for Japanese because person pronouns are commonly omitted; "He felt sad" and "I am sad" both become simply 悲しい in Japanese :)
  • A new event which "moves the story forward" tends to be presented in the past tense. Detailed information that is mainly used to vividly depict a scene tends to be presented with historical present. In other words, a sentence in the past tense forms a new segment, like a new mental "frame" of a comic. Then historical present sentences may follow to depict that "frame" in detail.

Please try re-reading your example with these in mind. おおかみを見せてくれた (past tense) introduces a new event, and the following two sentences (present tense) describe how the wolves looked. 犬みたいだ is what the protagonist felt about the wolves, which also explains why it's in the present tense. Then ほえはじめた (past tense) starts another scene, and the following two sentences (present tense) describe Jack's immediate reaction to the wolves in detail. This is also a very dynamic part.

  • Thank you, naruto - that was very helpful. Just getting the name of the technique (historical present) was a big help, but your thorough explanation really made this much clearer. Thank you! – Kristi Wachter Jul 24 at 6:16

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