Tense Decisions

By Michael

Writing is very difficult. Writing will be very difficult. Writing has been very difficult.

The English language allows for a very complex set of time-stamped situations. For the purposes of illustrating that point, I will place my verbs, modal verbs, and phrasal-verbs in bold throughout this post. When in combination with hypothetical situations, the speaker/writer uses something called the Conditional–and its myriad of forms–to create intricate descriptions of what-ifs, might-have-beens, and counter-to-facts.

Had I only been there a moment sooner, everything would have turned out for the better.

Writing about history, then, would seem to doom the writer to an eternity of wading through the swamp of tenses, filled with eddies and shifting currents of whens and who-said-whens. So, when should a writer use the past tenses versus the present tenses? While common sense instructs one to use the present to write about the present and the past to write about the past, there are many conventions that demand otherwise. This post contains some observations gleaned from writing my dissertation.

There are some guides and signposts for the writer to follow, however. When writing for a specific publisher or journal, the writer may receive a style-guide advising when to use which tenses in which situations. One of the most common admonitions is to place descriptions of an author’s writings in the present. The reasoning seems simple. An author may have written those words in the past, but the book remains accessible in the present. Ostensibly the writer, at least, can read the words now in the present and can even read them again in the future.

This is an issue for both my wife Teresa and myself. Our fields — literature and history, respectively — are dominated by the discussion of the written word. In short, when one writes about the written word, one uses the present tenses. Even historians of the near-past whose sources tend to belong to the world of Oral History tend to write about their sources in the present tense. The reasoning is clear. Oral historians are required by convention to first transcribe their oral sources, rendering them into a text.

This convention requires that scholars constantly change from tense-to-tense. To ease this for the reader, however, many writers attempt to separate tense changes at the paragraph level. While this may seem distracting, readers generally do not have difficulty comprehending the arguments presented.

I struggled with this convention. Many of my fellow graduate students also had difficulty understanding why their papers were returned filled with red ink, their errors of grammar and convention skewered by the observant reader. Most troubling was the grey area of subjectivity. The tense could shift from present to past in certain situations, dictated by the meaning intended by the author.

When the writer writes an analysis, she typically uses the ‘literary’ or ‘historical’ present:

In his work, Hemingway uses a sparse language. He avoids the adjective when possible.

However, if a writer wanted to stress that Hemingway changed or wrote differently at one time or another, she could use the past alternatively. Alternatively, someone writing a biography that described Hemingway’s writing as part of his life would choose past tense:

In his work, Hemingway used a sparse language. He avoided the adjective when possible.

Using the past tense changes the meaning of the sentence, thanks to the convention of literary/historical present. Using the past tense illustrates to the reader that they are reading a narrative. And so, the writer must answer a question: “Are you critiquing or narrating?” Seemingly simple, that question becomes very difficult to answer in situations that don’t easily fit into either category.

1 thought on “Tense Decisions”

  1. I have enjoyed getting to know you by your works. I am very proud to have a historian in the family who gives thought and attention of how your work is presented. Your loyalty to those you love is admirable. I will look forward to your future endeavors.

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