Using the Present-Tense of Verbs
when Referring to Actions and Ideas in a Work


(prepared by Rebecca Marez and Jeanette Jones-Sosa
Del Mar College
Corpus Christi, Texas)

When preparing a literary essay, you must give special consideration to your use of verb tense. 

The following discussion explains how and why. 

Literary works spring into life in the eyes and minds of readers with each and every reading. You may therefore assume that everything happening in the works—stories, poems, and plays—takes place in the present, and in talking about literature you should generally use the present tense of verbs. It is thus right to say, “Mathilde and her band work and economize [not worked and economized] for ten years to pay off the 18,000-franc debt which they undertake “ [not undertook] to pay off the lost necklace.” 

When you also consider an author’s ideas, the present tense should also be used, on the principle that the words of an author are just as alive and current today (and will be tomorrow) as they were at the moment of writing, even though this same author may have been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years. 

Ex., “Homer clearly presents his concept on the importance of honor through the actions of his heroes.”
However (and here’s where confusion can begin!), if you introduce historical or biographical details about a work or author, it is appropriate to use the past verb tense. This is because such details actually do belong to the past. Thus, it is correct to state that “Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616,” or that “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in about 1599-1600.” Got it?

(Here’s another twist, so be careful!) While it is incorrect to shift tenses inappropriately when ou write, it is possible to mix past and present tenses if you treat historical facts about a literary work while at the same time you are also considering it as a living text. Of prime importance is to keep things straight. Here is an example of what is acceptable: 

Because Hamlet was first performed in about 1600, Shakespeare most probably wrote it shortly before the time. In the play, a tragedy, Shakespeare treats an act of vengeance, but more importantly demonstrates the difficulty of ever learning the exact truth. The hero, Prince Hamlet, is visited by the Ghost of his father. Though the Ghost claims that his brother Claudius is his murderer, Hamlet is not able to verify this claim.
In this example, the historical details are presented in the past tense. All details about the play are discussed with present verb tense. As well, present tense is also used when discussing Shakespeare as the creating author. Remember that this is because his ideas and words are still alive. 

(One more note of caution here) You may encounter a problem when your work introduces references to actions that have occurred prior to the time of the main action (flashbacks). 

For example, in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home,” the main character’s discontent is a result of his combat experiences in Europe during World War I. In  describing this situation, therefore, you might say something similar to this: 

“Krebe cannot settle down because he is always thinking about the actions he went through during the time he spent fighting in Europe.” 
This use of the past influencing the present is acceptable because it corresponds to the cause-and-effect relationship brought out in the story. 

We know this sounds confusing at first, but the more attention you give to verb use in your literary discussions and essays, the more this will begin to make sense. As a principle, if you run into problems in managing verb tenses when discussing and writing about a work, always consult a qualified writing consultant and/or your instructor. 

[Much of this information is adapted from Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 3rd edition by Edgar V. Roberts and Harry R. Jacobs.] 

Legend: present tense verbs, past tense verbs are color-coded.

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