Is there a general rule of thumb for how to use verb tenses when doing, for example, a literature review for how an idea is treated across history?

For example, I'm proof-reading a paper for a friend, and the bolded verbs in this paragraph seem incongruous to me:

When it came to the miraculous accounts of the Gospels, Strauss also endeavoured to find naturalistic explanations. Jesus may have believed he was performing exorcisms on demoniacs, but for Strauss these people must have been either mentally disturbed or epileptic. He writes, “Jesus cured many persons who suffered from supposed demoniacal insanity or nervous disorder, in a physical manner, by the ascendancy of his manner and words.” Regarding the resurrection and ascension of Christ, Strauss declares them to be “visions or hallucinations engendered by the enthusiasm of the disciples. The ascension, too, is declared to be a myth.” Lacking an explanation, he concludes, “No other rescue for this self-annihilation remains to the anti-supernatural mode of explanation, than to question the verbal accuracy of the history.”

So the writer is both talking about what the authors did and said: how they were received across history and various things they specifically say. One instinct I have is that one should at least use paragraph breaks to separate between using present and past tense regarding an author. Thoughts?

  • Okay thanks, so you wouldn't go so far as to change the verb tense in the quotes using square brackets?
    – Mark
    Feb 22, 2019 at 19:49

1 Answer 1


When placing texts and authors in their historical context the past-tense is used to speak of them.

For example,

Like many of his contemporaries, X endeavoured to ...

When treating the text as a work that "speaks" across time to us as audience, we use the present tense.

For example,

In sonnet 33 Shakespeare calls the morning a flatterer "with sovereign eye".

  • Okay thanks, would you switch between these in the same paragraph?
    – Mark
    Feb 22, 2019 at 19:51
  • You wouldn't change anything in direct quotes (cured, suffered). It's possible to speak of the author in historical context and of the text as a present witness, and use past for the author and present for the text. We'd need more context to understand what is going on in that paragraph regarding the "endeavours". Is that text going to be compared to other texts for example, perhaps in chrono order?
    – TimR
    Feb 22, 2019 at 19:58

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