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I'm a graduate theology student, and I'm having some trouble with verb tenses. In my first chapter I explore the life and work of the author who is the subject of my study. I am often narrating in the past, but I also talk about particular things he wrote. I find myself saying things like:

"He published one of his most significant articles in 1944. In it, he writes..."

Would it be better to just put everything in the past tense (e.g., use "wrote" instead of "writes" above)?

My second chapter is almost all textual analysis and much less concerned with biographical details. There, I'm inclined to use the present, which would certainly be more conventional.

I appreciate any help. My advisor is great, but English is not his first language, so he's a little limited in his ability to help me in this area.

  • Brad, you could ask this at Academia SE too, I think. My own point of view about this is that either present or past would be okay. The main thing to avoid is inconsistency within a paragraph or section. I've seen some authors be so inconsistent I feel sort of whiplashed. So, your options for your example would be He published one of his most significant articles in 1944. In it, he wrote or He publishes one of his most significant articles in 1944. In it, he writes. Or perhaps: In 1944, in one of his most significant publications, he wrote [he wrote].... – aparente001 Aug 31 at 20:44
  • @aparentee If that's supposed to be an answer, please don't answer in comments. I would argue that a chronologic combination of tenses within a paragraph is reasonable; The only difficulty is that to write obviously precedes to publish, and that "he writes" is rather abstract instead of the present participle "is written". – vectory Aug 31 at 21:12
  • Also, please don't cross post to academia.SE. Rather wait for a mod to move it. However, I think it's alright here as the science tag has other questions relating to tense. – vectory Aug 31 at 21:41
  • It's quite normal to use the present tense when analyzing writing that happened in the past—even if it was written hundreds of years ago and the author is no longer alive. Either the present or past tense is fine; it's mainly up to you which you want to use. – Jason Bassford Sep 1 at 0:29
  • Although conventional wisdom says to be consistent with tenses, your "He published (past tense) .... In it, he writes (present tense) ...." sounds fine to my ear. Perhaps it is because "he writes" is more like "you can see his argument now" than "he put the words together then". – Lawrence Sep 1 at 17:08
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It's a well-established convention to write about literary works and works of art in the present tense. It's called the literary present tense.

https://www.vanderbilt.edu/writing/wp-content/uploads/sites/164/2016/10/Literary-present-tense.pdf

https://arcade.stanford.edu/blogs/present-tense

https://www.dummies.com/education/language-arts/grammar/write-literature-art-present-tense/

  • But OP asks: '"He published one of his most significant articles in 1944. In it, he writes..." Would it be better to just put everything in the past tense?' Note that he mixes tenses here, and asks about the mixing ('better to just put everything in ...). The use of the literary / historic present has been well covered here already. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 3 at 18:21
  • I'm aware of all of that. The examples given show where the past tense is used to indicate an actual event in the past, like when an author published an article in the past, and then going on to use the literary present tense when discussing the literary work itself, like saying, "He published the article in 1944. In it, he writes..." – Benjamin Harman Sep 3 at 19:18
  • But you don't give any examples. Just links. And your answer doesn't mention the practice of mixing tenses. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 4 at 13:46
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I don't think it's a tremendous problem. Biographical accounts are usually written in past tense, but the writing is actually in the book in the present tense. Summaries of books are usually given in the present tense, too (as well as for movies).


If you settle for one tense in both clauses, the mismatch in tenses indicates a mistake in the argument. After all he had to have written before he could publish what was written. The significance of the book is a consequence of its content. The ostensible mistake is recoverable for the reader, though--maybe you knew the book was influential before you picked it up; Or the idea was significant before being written down.

I really do not see the problem. If in doubt, maybe render a few more examples.

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