© Damen, 2002

14. Present-Tense Verbs.

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.g. came, saw, conquered). 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.

A. Literary Papers. When describing the action or characters in a work of literary fiction, use the present tense: "At the midpoint of The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus journeys to the realm of the dead." It's best in this case to use the present tense ("journeys"), because stories like Homer's epics exist in a timeless realm where they can happen over and over again each time we read them. 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.

B. History Papers. 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 posture 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!" Here, a past action ("yesterday") is being expressed in the present tense ("I'm standing," "comes," "robs"), with the speaker acting as if both he and the listeners were there when the event occurred.

The use of past tenses, on the other hand, makes it seem as if the speaker is more aloof and remote from what happened: "Yesterday I stood in line at a store and a man came in and robbed it." Because of the past tenses ("stood," "came," "robbed"), the speaker appears to care less about the past actions he's relating. 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 problem with "right here right now" in writing assignments for a history class is the writer doesn't have to engage the reader in the story. 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!—in whatever you have to say. 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.

The Past Tense. 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. I mean, are we supposed to imagine we are right there alongside Charlemagne suffering his troubles, or viewing him from a safe historical distance and reflecting calmly upon his tribulations with the Saxons?

The answer is simple. If your paper is part of a historical study and you must by definition spend the majority of your time in the past tense, it's best just to stay there as much as possible. 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. There is one notable exception to the rule of excluding present-tense verbs in academic prose. When modern scholars are drawing conclusions about the past, their words should be expressed in the present tense. Despite the fact that the data are taken from history, the opinion exists now and should be stated as such.

For example, while it's true that Caesar ruled long ago, the conclusions which current researchers infer from the surviving evidence about his life and reign are modern, living things. Thus, "Caesar's generalship leaves behind the impression of the right man at the right moment in history." In other words, if your point is that some thesis about the past exists today, state that opinion in the present tense: "This promotes the idea that . . ." or "Justinian's failures suggest that the internal disarray of the Byzantine Empire was his responsibility because . . ."

This applies not only to what we think, but also to what we see and how we see it. So, for instance, "The Bayeux Tapestry depicts William the Conqueror as having a fair and justified claim to the English throne . . ." or "The Magna Carta argues for the strong sense of feudalistic duty the English barons felt incumbent upon them . . ." In sum, present-tense verbs are appropriate in historical argumentation, so long as the writer is discussing the current nature of research and modern ways of approaching historical data. In other words, "Homer composed poetry long ago, but we today interpret it along certain lines."

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