© Nani, 2013

37. Was It Then, and Is It Still?

History really happens in two different contexts. Those who write about events in the past live in the modern world. Keeping those time frames clear and distinct is essential in sound formal style.

•  Bad Example: “It turns out that the precipitation in Ancient Mesopotamia is devastating to the inhabitants there because it can lead to both severe flooding in the rainy season and severe drought in the dry season.”

If the author is speaking about antiquity, this is a clear error of verb tense (Section 14) because we the readers are not living in ancient Mesopotamia and cannot experience what the Babylonians, for instance, did. But in a modern context, the statement is valid because the amount of rainfall is still a factor in life today in that part of the world. The writer is pointing to a fact that was and still is a truth. When that is the case, what's the best way to describe the situation in formal writing?

Let's look at another example:


•  Example: "The Nile was essential to human life in Egypt."

  The correctness of this statement depends of the context in which it is made. It is a fact that, as Herodotus says, "Egypt is the gift of the Nile," but whether that should be stated in the present or past tense depends on which time frame the author is referring to: the past or the present. If the focus is on ancient life, the sentence should make that explicitly clear:

•  Example: "The Nile was essential to human life in ancient Egypt."


If the author is comparing ancient and modern life, that also needs to be clear:


•  Example: The Nile was and still is essential to human life in Egypt."

  An equivalent statement which uses only the present-tense ("The Nile is essential to human life in Egypt.") will rarely be needed in formal historical prose, since historians tend to talk about the past. Remember that this rule applies only to facts which "were and still are" valid both then and now, and writers need to make it clear to their reader whether their focus is on the past or the present or both, and employ tenses accordingly.
The take-way here ought to be clear: context matters in formal, historical writing. You need to be clear about certain conditions that either mattered then, matter now, or both—and to whom they mattered is really the core of the question! By following the guidelines above, the context of the paragraph should make this clear.
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