by Molly Rookwood
Published at 2020-03-31
We use different tenses all the time: I am listening to music. I went to the store on Saturday. I will make broccoli tonight. I am waiting for the television that I bought to arrive, and later I will watch a movie on it.
We rarely think about our use of tenses, even in examples like the last one I listed in which I used present, past, and future tense in the same sentence. When starting a piece of writing, however, we must actively make choices about which tense to use. Different types of writing require different tenses, and the choice to write in one tense as opposed to another is an important one.
Because of how conjugation works in English, we typically think about tense in the simple past/present/future distinctions: I went; I go; I will go. There are other tenses that we use without realizing it because of how our language is conjugated. These are not typically things that we learn in school; many people, myself included, only learned about other verb tenses when learning a second language. I am not going to describe all of the different verb tenses in English, but “An Introduction to Verb Tenses,” published by Learning English on December 31, 2015, provides an excellent breakdown.
Within academia, a paper’s tense is typically determined by its subject matter. When writing about history, it makes sense that a writer would choose to work in the past tense. The only reasonable exception to this would be cases in which a writer is applying aspects of the past to the present or future. This could take the form of applying lessons of the past to the future, like when a writer compares the 1918 Flu Pandemic to the spread of COVID-19. While much of a paper like this would be in the past tense, it makes logical sense that the writer would switch to the present tense.
In literature papers, or in writing that discusses other written work, we typically use the present tense. This is because the characters or ideas in a book being analyzed are constant and unchanging. They exist out of time, and thus it does not make sense to discuss them in relation to time. To say, in a literature paper, that Elizabeth Bennet went to Pemberley and encountered Mr. Darcy there would be incorrect. Because Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy exist within a book, they are always acting in the present tense. In a literary analysis of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet goes to Pemberley, where she encounters Mr. Darcy.
While writing about things that occur in books should remain in the present tense, writing about those books’ authors could certainly be in the past tense. In a paper like the one above about Pride and Prejudice, I might write, “Jane Austen grew up in the gentry, or the upper class of society, and wrote about the society she experienced, which is why all of her characters are in the same social class, rather than in the nobility or lower class.” In this example, the verbs describing Jane Austen and her real, historical life are in the past tense, while “are,” which describes her fictional characters, is in the present tense.
Papers about mathematics would be written in the present tense for the same reason as literature papers. The contents of a mathematics paper are unchanging. Two plus two equals four. To say “two plus two equalled four” implies that it no longer does, and to say “two plus two will equal four” implies that it does not yet.
Science papers could be written in any of the tenses, depending on the topic. A science paper might discuss the way things were in the past, how they are now, and how they will be in the future, all within the same paper. The correct tense in a scientific paper (or a current events/politics paper, or many other types) will be the one that makes sense based on context.
Unlike academic writing, fiction can be in almost any tense. While most fiction is still written in the past tense, there are many fantastic novels written in the present tense, which allows writers to pull readers into a story that unfolds as they read it. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is written in the standard past tense, where we follow the characters through the story as it unfolds, but the verbs are all written in the past tense. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is written in the retrospective past tense, which means that the narrator (Jane) is telling the story to the reader from later in the story’s timeline. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season series is written in the present tense, and this allows the reader to feel truly in the moment of the story, as if they are experiencing the story exactly as the character does.
At least in English, it is hard to imagine a book written in the future tense. Such a book would be experimental, to say the least. This is because in order to tell a story, there has to be a beginning, middle, and end, even in something like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. The future tense would make that difficult, if not impossible.
One of the biggest things to watch for when editing—both in your own work and others’—is consistency of tense. If a writer starts out in the past tense, make sure they stay that way unless there’s a good reason for the shift. Regardless of the subject matter, if there is a shift in tense, double check that it happens for a clear reason. If you can’t tell why a tense changes, try to rephrase the sentence to avoid a tense shift. Make a point of thinking about why a certain tense is used, and if there isn’t a good reason for a shift, find a way to simplify the sentence to avoid unneeded tense changes.
Like most things in editing, consistency and logic are key. Keep your intention on clarity, concision, and consistency, and proper tenses should follow.
Molly Rookwood is a freelance editor and grammar-enthusiast based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having trouble with tenses? We can help! Contact us at email@example.com.