Use of the correct verb tense allows you to express clearly the time relationships among your ideas. When deciding which verb tense to use, aim for consistency, simplicity, and clarity. Whenever possible, keep verbs in the same tense (consistency), and use either the simple present or the past tense (simplicity). Above all, choose the verb tense that most clearly expresses the idea you want to convey (clarity). In general, use the present tense to describe actions and states of being that are still true in the present; use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past.
Use the present tense to make generalizations about your topic or the views of scholars:
Use the present tense to cite an author or another source (except in science writing, where past tense is used; see below).
(n.b.: whether or not the author is still living is not relevant to selection of tense.)
Use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past:
At times you will use both present and past tense to show shifts between time relationships. Use present tense for those ideas/observations that are considered timeless and past tense for actions occurring in the past:
Use the present tense to describe fictional events that occur in the text:
(This use of present tense is referred to as "the historical present.")
Also use the present tense to report your interpretations and the interpretations of other sources:
Use the past tense to explain historical context or elements of the author's life that occurred exclusively in the past:
When writing about literature, use both present and past tense when combining observations about fictional events from the text (present tense) with factual information (past tense):
Use the present perfect tense to describe an event that occurs in the text previous to the principal event you are describing:
Use the past tense when referring to an event occurring before the story begins:
Most of the time, use past tense when writing for science.
Use past tense to discuss completed studies and experiments:
Use past tense when referring to information from outside sources:
(N.B.: a common mistake in science writing is the use of present tense when referring to what other authors have written.)
As in writing for other disciplines, use present tense in science writing when describing an idea or fact that is still true in the present:
Also use present tense in science writing when the idea is the subject of the sentence and the citation remains fully in parentheses:
Contrast the above sentence to the following, also correct, construction:
The logic and practice of the discipline for which you write determine verb tense. If you have questions about tense or other writing concerns, check with your professor.
Webb, Suzanne, Robert Miller, and Winifred Horner. Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, fourteenth edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001.
Zach Brown '03, and Sharon Williams would like to thank the following readers for their assistance in the preparation of this handout: Meghan Barbour '00, John Farranto, '01, and Professors Eismeier, Grant, Hopkins, Jensen, J. O'Neill, Strout, Thickstun, and E. Williams.
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