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What (grammatical) tense to use when doing reference in a paper?
Should I use present or past tense when referring to a (scientific) paper?
“has been raised” or “was raised” in an academic journal

Peter Singer (who is still alive) wrote a paper in 1971. A student is now reading it and wants to make various references to it in her assignment.

Does she write, for example, "Singer argued" or "Singer argues"? Similar verbs would also be used in the paper. Argued is past tense and would appear to be used correctly when referring to a paper that was written in the past. However what is written and now being read still has currency, therefore introducing an argument for "argues"

What I would like to achieve is identify the/a explicit rule that dictates one over/or the other Then the student can apply it consistently throughout the assignment (and I will stop umming and ahhing every time and throw off the appearance of being all knowledgeable on these matters).

  • 1
    These things tend to vary from style guide to style guide often depending on the subject matter. The customary tenses are simple past and present perfect. However, recency and the nature (ongoing) or purpose (analysis) of the quotation might make the present tense more appropriate. If you are in academia, your institution might already recommend a style guide which covers these matters. Feb 1, 2013 at 7:25

3 Answers 3


As coleopterist said, it's usually a style-guide issue. There's no hard and fast rule about using simple past, simple present, or present perfect. As for the argument that because Singer's piece was written in the past, you'd use the past ... well, that's absurd: everything already said and written occurred in the past. If it hadn't, we wouldn't be able to read it or to have heard it or hear it again (if recorded).

The most important point is to be consistent about tense. There might be reasons for using one tense versus the other two. For example:

If the writer thinks that Singer's argument is still valid, simple present seems a good choice: The argument was stated long ago, but it still holds. The Statue of Liberty was created long ago, but it still stands.

If the writer thinks that Singer's argument is no longer valid, simple past seems a good choice: "Singer argued X, but Rapper proved him wrong in his 2009 article 'X is False'.

If the writer thinks that Singer's argument may still be valid but not 100% persuasive, especially because of rival arguments, present perfect seems a good choice: "Although Singer has argued X and Rapper has argued Y, Crooner has shown that both X and Y contain logical flaws that make Z a viable alternative".

Another reason for choosing the present tense is to give the argument currency and for choosing past is to place it definitely in the past and imply that it's history, not a currently accepted argument. Again, that's a matter of style, not grammar. Grammar can affect semantics, however.

Your argument "...what is written and now being read still has currency[;] therefore[,] introducing an argument for 'argues'" is persuasive enough for me. I'd go with that because I think it's a logical and powerful argument.

There's no reason to insist on associating these tenses with my reasons for choosing them for the example sentences I've offered. They're style choices and expressions of the writer's personal preference in this case, not hard and fast rules. Consistency is the most important rule.


APA says simple past ("Singer argued") or present perfect ("Singer has argued").

MLA favours simple present ("Singer argues"), though I think it allows present perfect and even simple past.

I don't know about CMS, though they use the simple present themselves, on their site.

A house style based on one of the above could still deviate from it on this point, so should always be consulted.

If you have a style that favours the present, but allows the past, you may opt to use the past for former opinions, since abandoned ("Farrar & Farrar argued that two men could not practice witchcraft together. Critics argue that this opinion is homophobic and the Farrars themselves later rejected this view."), scientific opinions that were widely accepted but that the consensus has moved on for ("Newton argues..." might sound like implying that if he were alive today, he'd reject relativity and everything else that came after him, unfairly pitting unlike against unlike) or for opinions made in light of a particular event.

If you have a style that favours the past, it may allow for the present to be used about general streams of criticism rather than individuals (so e.g. "Feminists argue..." even if you would have "Greer argued..."). Conversely, a style that favours the present may allow for the past to be used for a general stream of criticism, if the opinion is specific to a particular time or dissenting opinions have since emerged within the group in question (so e.g. "Feminists argued..." even if you have "Greer argues...").

But again, those are only matters of how you might allow the leeway a style guide offers. The opposite choices are not invalid, and may be required by the guide.

  • Interestingly, at least in my mind this morning, what if Singer was dead? I would tend to lean for the argued case. eg Churchill argued in his book. He no longer argues in his book because he is no longer alive, though I concede his words live on. I seem to be associating some sort of physicality to this argument), which may lend itself to something more philosophical than just English usage
    – Martyn
    Feb 2, 2013 at 1:01

In this context of referencing, you'd say 'argued' because the paper was written in the past, so would use past tense.

  • Thank you Amanda. I still trip over the fact that the paper is being read in the present and the contents are "timeless". Not doubting your wisdom but there is something nagging away in the back of my mind. "Argued" also has a past implication in that it possibly is no longer valid. Mind you if you told me it was present past tense or something like that I would probably just shut up and get on with life(can anyone deliver a fatal bullet to the "argues" case!
    – Martyn
    Feb 1, 2013 at 7:32
  • I prefer argues for the reasons you mention. In this paper, Singer argues that..... This argument has since...
    – mplungjan
    Feb 1, 2013 at 8:05
  • 2
    This answer in its current form is simplistic to the point of being wrong. By this reasoning, historical present simply cannot exist.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 1, 2013 at 12:00

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