What is the rule for the following examples?

  • In the passage, the author writes. . . .

  • In the passage, the author wrote. . . .

I’m trying to explain to my son that both are correct, but I can’t tell him why because I don’t know the rule to reference.

  • I'm not native of English language, but I suppose this link can help you (historical present): en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_present – user19148 Sep 28 '12 at 17:34
  • From the standpoint of mistakes that students writing essays usually make, you might want to emphasize that the important thing is sticking to the same tense whenever possible, instead of arbitrarily switching back and forth between present and past. – Merk Sep 28 '12 at 19:12

Grammar Girl recently addressed this topic in "Present Tense in a Story." Her basic thesis was that the tense of the verb sets an expectation that may or may not adhere to the situation. If I say, "Her name was Susan," does that imply that it no longer is Susan? You might be setting someone up to think she's either dead or married since! For that reason, even if it is "right" it may seem wrong, because it connotes a change, even if technically it doesn't denote one. What Grammar Girl does not say is that English actually lacks the ability to properly express this condition.

The truth is that this situation calls for an aorist verb - one that began in the past and may or may not be continuing. Aorists are the "non-temporal" verb. They are unmarked in respect to time. They say "it doesn't really matter when this action occurred."

Greek uses this extensively - especially in the New Testament. English, like most Latin and Germanic languages lacks this, however. As such, either the past or present tense (or even a present progressive or past progressive) is valid, because we do not have a single case that covers both.

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    Her name was Susan certainly does not imply that it is not Susan now, unless the context makes it clear that that was the case. If I say I met a nice girl last week. I think her name was Susan, there is absolutely no implication that she is no longer with us. – Barrie England Sep 28 '12 at 19:31
  • @BarrieEngland The ambiguity is the point - Both are fully valid, but a literal interpretation of the sentence could lead one to the erroneous conclusion that it is no longer the case. – Affable Geek Sep 28 '12 at 19:36
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    I don't think it could. We don't make literal interpretations unless we are particularly perverse. The context takes care of most potential ambiguities. – Barrie England Sep 28 '12 at 19:39
  • I agree with @Barrie. Only a severely literal mind would interpret "Her name was Susan" as meaning Susan is no longer, or no longer has that name. – Robusto Sep 28 '12 at 19:52
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    @Robusto: I think that was Affable Geek's point - sometimes, a past tense verb doesn't mean strictly in the past. Of course we don't make interpretations that literally, unless we are linguistically perverse (or maybe a non-native getting confused about past tense). – J.R. Sep 28 '12 at 20:27

In general the present tense is used when the author’s words are the subject of present discussion. So we might say ‘Schopenhauer writes that after your death you will be what you were before your birth, but there is no real evidence for that claim.’

The past tense might be used when an author’s words are being quoted, but no detailed discussion is expected, as in, for example, ‘Keats wrote that beauty is truth, truth beauty.’

In practice, however, there is often no hard and fast distinction, and the use of the two tenses is a matter of personal choice, depending on the circumstances at the time of speaking or writing.

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