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How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays

If you're writing about fiction, TV, and other stories, especially time-shifting tales, it can be tricky figuring out whether to use present tense or past tense. We have help!

By
Tulpelo Hassman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #704
The mad hatter from Alice in Wonderland

Tense is almost always an issue and this is sad. Here is a tissue. What tense should you write in? The answer is mystifying but it can be absorbed, I promise. Be flexible:

You should always write in the past tense when you are speaking of a historical event, that's obvious. 

Write in the present tense when you are writing about events in a story such as a novel or TV show.

You should always write in the present tense when you are speaking of a text, any text, and for many people this is the tricky part. However, this idea is essential: whatever is happening in a text is happening forever, the action is never finished. The man and his daughter in “American Gothic” didn't used to stand together with the pitchfork, right? because you don't look at the painting and find them gone to the fair, they stand in the painting together. They stand there forever. She never gets married, he never smokes his pipe and looks at the moon. The kiddos on “Lost” are on the island (unless they're not, we’ll talk about this in a minute) and this is not only because the show is time-warped. Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole each time you reach that page, right? The words, images, and sounds found in a text are eternal, what else would explain the healthy ego of the artist, high on the drug of creating such infinite gestures?

Consider Alice again. If you are presenting an argument about the repressed female psyche in “Alice in Wonderland,” you might describe the opening scene on the grass (in the present-tense) with statements such as, "Alice sits on the grass, its well-manicured ridges representing the restrictions of Victorian life," or "Alice sees a rabbit in the painful throes of a procrastination addiction and she follows him down..." Alice is always seeing the rabbit, she is always following him, forever and ever amen. 

It's more complicated when you're writing about events that happened in the past in the novel relative to the current time in the novel.

Now for the advanced note on this subject, put on your thinking cap: While the major rule is to always discuss texts in the present tense, the minor rule is that there is such a thing as the past tense of the text, for example, in a chronological text if you were referencing an event that takes place on page 213, whatever happened on page 50 would be discussed in the past tense. If you are presenting an argument about Alice's later adventures, "much to her alarm, Alice's body fills up the house," but want to speak to a historical event in the novel, you would employ the past tense, "much to her alarm, Alice's body fills up the house in a way never imagined back on the grassy knoll."  In a text that jumps around chronologically, you have to speak to the text's present moment in the present and everything else in the past, and if you want to dive deeper into that special circle of hell, please review episodes of “Lost,” any version of “Dr. Who,” or ask Hermione.

Super jeopardy comes when we discuss a text that references a historical event. You'll have to be clear which, the text or the history, you are referencing (and if you are referencing the history, you'll still need a source to cite unless the information you share is considered common knowledge) and share that clarity with your audience. 

Tupelo Hassman is the author of "gods with a little g,” and also teaches composition at Santa Monica College and California State University, East Bay. She uses Grammar Girl in her classroom and shared this advice she gives to students about how to use tense in essays.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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