It's standard for scholars in the humanities to write about the contents of a book in the present tense, but write about the factual details of the book or author in the past tense. My question has to do with using the literary present to speak about what a book says and in the same sentence write about an event that happened prior to the author writing the book.

So, take, for example, the following sentence written in the past tense:

In his book, the author lamented the loss of the individual who had once been his closest friend.

When you write this sentence in literary present, does it become:

  1. In his book, the author laments the loss of the individual who had once been his closest friend.


  1. In his book, the author laments the loss of the individual who was once his closest friend.


In the first example, only the past tense "lamented" is converted to literary present, while the past perfect "had once been" remains the same. The problem here is that I was taught the past perfect is only used with the past tense. However, even in literary present, it's understood that "laments" refers to an action in the past. So, are both sentences grammatical?

Off the bat, neither of them strikes me as unnatural sounding, and both seem clear.


I dug up this example from Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, which seems to match 1). And who am I to challenge Russell's grammar?

In this passage Hobbes shows an old-fashioned rationalism. Kepler had arrived at a general proposition.

  • Is this a novel you're talking about? And is the person who's lamenting truly the author, or is it the narrator? – ewormuth Aug 19 '15 at 23:23
  • I'm helping a non-native English speaker write an academic essay. They're referring to an essay written by a poet. – Blake Aug 19 '15 at 23:26
  • Well, that said, I think either 1) or 2) could work. I prefer 1). – ewormuth Aug 20 '15 at 0:03
  • I'm not sure the example matches your question, since Kepler's proposition is not included in Hobbes (or even mentioned by him, to my imperfect recollection). If previously were inserted after had, it would be clearer. And I do in fact think that tenses should match in two halves of a sentence, whether literary present or otherwise. – Tim Lymington Aug 20 '15 at 0:10
  • I'm not certain why it matters whether or not Kepler's proposition was included in Hobbes. In the Russell example, he uses literary present (when past tense could be used as well) to describe what the text says, and then references an event that happened before the text was written using the past perfect. If he had said "showed" instead of "shows," it would have to be "had arrived" for it to be clear that Kepler's proposition came first. And I also don't know why "previously" is necessary; to me, it would seem redundant with "had," even if it is clearer. – Blake Aug 20 '15 at 0:27

Version 1, if you think this person can handle it.

I'm sorry, I don't have a source to back this up, other than my ear, which is quite certain of the answer.

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  • I agree. My ear tells me number one is correct. I would never have considered that it should be simple past, not past perfect, until they asked about it. After having both sentences rolling around my head, however, neither sounds particularly clunky to me. – Blake Aug 22 '15 at 16:00

My feeling is that this is a kind of reported speech that requires back shifting or in this case, forward shifting. So I feel that example two is the best; you switch from simple past and past perfect to simple present and simple past. It could be argued that it should be "has been." But it's not clear from your example if this is needed for the meaning.

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  • True. The event order is clear in both, so why---rhetorical question---not use the more concise one? – Blake Aug 22 '15 at 16:02
  • @Damon what do you mean by more concise one? – michael_timofeev Aug 22 '15 at 17:13
  • i mean that simple past uses less words. – Blake Aug 23 '15 at 20:03
  • so, regardless of whether or not it's grammatical to do so, if the simple past is sufficient for conveying the order of events, it makes sense that using the shorter form would be preferable to using needless words (i.e. has/had). i also just realized that your answer said "has been" and not "had been." i would say that "has been" would be incorrect for the example, unless you're referring to events that happened in a story prior to whatever event(s) you may be discussing, since literary present is not for talking about historical/biographical facts. – Blake Aug 23 '15 at 20:12
  • Fewer words doesn't mean better or more clear or the correct choice...it just means fewer words. Good writing isn't like an airplane in which you're trying to aim for fuel efficiency by making the craft as light as possible. Clarity is the point. Has and had are not "needles words" – michael_timofeev Aug 24 '15 at 0:44

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