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From the article on French Wikipedia on J.R.R. Tolkien:

Tolkien commence à écrire pour son plaisir dans les années 1910, élaborant toute une mythologie autour de langues qu’il invente.

Shouldn't commence be in passé simple, or imparfait?

And now that I look at it again… Shouldn't “dans les années 1910” be “en l'année 1910”? Or just “en 1910”?

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

This particular use of présent is called présent de narration or présent historique, it describes a past event in the présent tense.

présent de narration ou présent historique : il est employé dans les récits pour donner un relief particulier à un fait en le rendant plus présent à l'esprit du lecteur ou de l'auditeur. Il est généralement introduit par des temps du passé.

  • Le 15 décembre 1926, il épouse Marie et convole en justes noces.
  • Hier, j'ai essayé de le convaincre. Je lui montre les papiers; il me rit au nez.

Wikipédia fr

In encyclopaedic texts, it is akin to the présent de vérité générale, used to talk about something that is always true, as in “Tous les matins, le soleil se lève”.

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I hate having to accept one answer when both are equally great! –  Aerovistae Jul 25 '12 at 14:51
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In articles such as those, the present tense is very common. It also has the particularity of being called présent historique. Basically, it allows for a lighter text and can be mixed with passé simple to emphasize certain events. Wikipedia has a little article on its pros and cons. You will most often find this kind of structure in history books or articles, hence its name.

As for your commented question, dans les années 1910 is correct, as is en l'année 1910, although en 1910 sounds more natural. However, the meanings are not the same. When you say dans les années 1910, it means "in the 1910's", so anywhere between 1910 and 1919. On the other hand, en l'année 1910, or en 1910, means "in 1910". It's specific to that year. So since it's probably difficult to pinpoint when exactly he first started to write, you approximate it.

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+1 for actually answering both questions. –  Stamm Jul 26 '12 at 17:51
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