Past vs. Present in Literary Essays

For a while, I was teaching English as a second language. My students would write essays for me and one of the hardest things for them was finding the right verb tense to use. When writing literary essays, it can be confusing to know when to use past tense and when to use present tense. A rule of thumb is that any discussion of a book or an article—or anything that is in writing—is always in the present tense. The logic behind this is that the written work always exists. You can open up any part of a book and the action will be happening right before your eyes. This is why we talk about books as though they are continuously happening; in a way, they are.

The tricky part is when you are referring to historical events that influence or relate to a literary text. If I were talking about George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and was referencing the characters’ similarities to Russian revolutionaries, I would talk about Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in the past tense—they are dead and their actions are in the past. Nothing we can do will change that.

One of the reasons I am mentioning the difficulty of tense is because it happens to everybody. I remember using strange and awkward sentence constructions to try to avoid using the past tense in my essays, even though it would have been completely appropriate. In some ways, I think students become afraid of writing because there are so many ways that we are told not to do it. It wasn’t until second-year university that I realized it was OK to use the first person singular in my essays. I think this… I will argue that.

Of course, there are more than two verb tenses. The deeper you delve into grammar, the more complicated the verb tenses get. My personal favourite is the future perfect, which reads as: “I will have walked to the store and back by the time you get home.” Time conditionality has always interested me, which is what is being illustrated here (I think this is why I love Doctor Who so much). Because I am a native English speaker, I don’t notice the use of future perfect on a daily basis—but I do so appreciate it when I see it written. It produces a particularly poetic turn of phrase that I just find irresistible.

For an extensive resource on grammar (including verb tense), see Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource by Maxine Ruvinsky.

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