I'm writing a history essay, and I don't know what tense to use in a case such as:

In A.D. 7, Dave kills/killed a cow.

Is it supposed to be killed or kills?

  • 2
    In A.D. 7... Dave? Don't you mean David? It's like calling the historical characters Joseph, Joe, or Elizabeth, Betty.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 25, 2013 at 7:17
  • It's just some random example, derived from my original sentence.
    – Rex
    Dec 25, 2013 at 13:42

2 Answers 2


Either can be made to work.

So there is no “supposed to be” here, and so there cannot be a single correct answer that rules out the other.

It all depends on how you have constructed your narrative, which is something we cannot discern from the tiny sample posted here.

  • As a reference, my first sentence is: Throughout the centuries, the holy city of Jerusalem has been the topic of disputes and feuds.
    – Rex
    Dec 25, 2013 at 6:06
  • @Rex Given that, I would likely use the past tense. However, if you were supplying a list of dates that describes what happens in each year, I would use the present tense.
    – tchrist
    Dec 25, 2013 at 6:11

I would use past tense in this case.

There is something of a convention in formal writing (especially academic) away from the immediate present, and from my experience in writing essays (in particularly history essays), past is the norm.

However, given that your previous sentence is indicated as past tense, I would definitely preserve the paragraph narrative tense (or even the document-wide narrative tense) as past tense - it would be jarring and could even be confusing to the reader if the governing tense were to change to the present.

For a rough guide on presenting consistent narrative in the confusing "world of the tense", this link might help too.

All the best!

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