Subscribe to our FREE email newsletter and download free character development worksheets! Guest Column March 25, When the literary historians of the year write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive—and, perhaps, problematic—feature. Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. And why was the present tense now omnipresent?
The tense of the verb in a sentence reflects the time at which the action is set. In historical studies that is, by definition, in the past. The vast majority of verbs used in history papers are past-tense e. When the topic is literature, however, it's a different matter.
The action which takes place in works of fiction exists in a timeless world. So, in describing characters or recapitulating the plots found in literature, it's best to use the present tense. Here's how to construct tenses properly for both types of paper. When describing the action or characters in a work of literary fiction, use the present tense: The present tense highlights the vividness with which they re-occur whenever they pass through our minds and, because they're works of fiction, they can and do relive with every re-reading.
This isn't true of the authors themselves, however. Discussing Homer, not his epics, calls for the past tense, because he's dead and can't come to life the way his works can. So, when writing about the man, you should speak in the past tense "Homer composed his epics spontaneously in performance"in contrast to recapitulating the tales he told "The theme of Achilles' anger runs throughout The Iliad.
Thus, literary papers usually entail a balance of past-tense and present-tense verbs. Conversely, past-tense verbs should dominate history papers because the vividness of the present tense pertains less to the discussion of history than it does to literature.
While it's possible to describe the historical past in the present tense, such a writing a book in present tense belongs more naturally to casual conversation than formal writing. That is, when a speaker is trying to make his account of something which happened in the past seem more real to a listener, he may use the present tense, saying, for instance, "So, yesterday I'm standing in line at this store and some man comes in and robs it!
The use of past tenses, on the other hand, makes it seem as if the speaker is more aloof and remote from what happened: Thus, to avoid the sense that they are neutral and unconcerned, speakers often use the present tense when relating a past action, since it lends the story a sense of being right there right then.
After all, that's what the present tense is, by definition, "right here right now. The writing has the reader's full and undivided attention at all times, because I'm the reader and I'm totally involved—I guarantee it!
Nor do you need to encourage me to see the past vividly. I do that naturally, because it's my job and I love it. So, for your writing assignments in a history course, please don't use the present tense, when describing the past.
Use the past tense, instead. Furthermore, to the same extent that the present tense is unnecessary in this particular context, the past tense is helpful.
By stating the facts of history rather coolly in the past tense you appear calm and collected, which, in turn, makes your judgment seem more sober and reasoned. You don't look excited or excitable, and that's a good thing for a historian who's trying to convince others to see the past a certain way.
Arguments in this arena work better when they appear to come from cool heads. Let's look at how this works.
Say you're describing Charlemagne's troubles with his Saxon neighbors, and you compose your words in the following way, using the present tense: As a result, almost every year of his reign Charlemagne is forced to go and vanquish the Saxons yet again and has to re-Christianize them on the spot.
It's very vivid, isn't it, quite intense even? But it doesn't sound very critical or reasoned. Now, say you use the past tense: As a result, almost every year of his reign Charlemagne was forced to go and vanquish the Saxons yet again and had to re-Christianize them on the spot.
Less exciting, true, but it seems more composed, less agitated or swept away with passion—or biased. And that makes for more dispassionate and thus more persuasive historical writing.
By appearing aloof, you're simply more likely to win over your readers, in this arena at least. Mixing Past Tenses and Present Tenses.
Including present-tense verbs in historical, academic prose can also lead to trouble when, as is inevitable, you must at some point revert to past-tense verbs. Here's what it sounds like when you mix present and past tenses: Almost every year of his reign Charlemagne is forced to go and vanquish the Saxons again and has to re-Christianize them on the spot.
It was a serious problem and he never completely resolved it. The contrast between the present-tense forms "is forced," "has to re-Christianize" and past-tense forms "was," "resolved" is something short of graceful. Moreover, to vacillate between these can be disconcerting to your readers.Present-Tense Verbs.
Thus, literary papers usually entail a balance of past-tense and present-tense verbs. Whatever you do, try not to flip back and forth between past and present verb forms.
When the present tense is necessary in all types of formal writing. Which Tense is Right For Your Book, Past Tense or Present Tense? As you can see present tense has its advantages and disadvantages.
If you’re writing a film-like, deep POV novel with an unreliable narrator in which the story takes place in just few days, present tense could be a perfect choice. Also, because his book is a crime novel, writing it in the present tense allows the reader to unfold the mystery at the same time as the main character.
When Jack . My first novel was written in the past tense, and once again I’m writing a fictional crime memoir primarily in the past tense.
However, when the protagonist gets to the action he’s suddenly in the present tense.
The past tense is by far the most common tense used in novel writing today, at least if you exclude the kind of literary fiction that doesn’t sell in meaningful numbers. Come to think of it, you see past tense everywhere – in non-fiction, newspapers, magazines, the broadcast media, you name it.
May 18, · KathyI've heard that present tense should be used in writing a book report.I haven't heard this, but I suppose you would say, "The title of the book is ", not "The title of the book was ", so you may need the present tense for certain sentences.