Present-day America and the late nineteenth century were characterized by many of the same trends

In the above sentence, would it be correct to write "were characterized" or "are characterized?"

  • 1
    Yes. It would be correct to write “were characterized” or “are characterized”.
    – Jim
    Oct 8 '17 at 22:15
  • Present-day America and late nineteenth century America is and was characterized by many of the same trends. Oct 8 '17 at 22:47

I think the English teachers I had in school and the editors I have worked with would advise rephrasing the sentence in order to completely avoid the conflicting-tenses conundrum. For example:

Many of the trends that characterized late-nineteenth-century America are shared by present-day America.

There is no single tense that can simultaneously apply to descriptions of both the past and the present.

As @Eve said, any description of how something is in the present day cannot use the past tense.

I must disagree with @NigelJ's contention that the present tense is appropriate for describing how something was characterized in the past.

Generally speaking, it would not be appropriate to say, "The past is characterized by ...". On the contrary, the accepted phrasing would almost always be, "The past was characterized by ...". Consider that it similarly would be incorrect to say, "The Middle Ages are a time of great strife"; the preferred statement would be, "The Middle Ages were a time of great strife." Since the late nineteenth century is in the past, the past tense must be used for making a statement concerning something that was true for that period.

(There is a special exception to the rule of having to use the past tense when describing the past, which I believe is called using the historical present, which does not really apply in the situation we are considering here.)


It is correct to use the verb "are"; the reason is that "present-day America" is exactly that, and cannot be described in the past tense.


Past historical states have a certain character to them. That characterisation still exists although the historical state does not. Therefore I think it would never be wrong to say an historical state 'is' characterised by something. Nor is is it wrong to say it 'was' characterised, for it was so at the time.

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