Verbs: Past Tense? Present? by Melanie Dawson & Joe Essid (printable version here )
When you write an essay, an exam response, or even a brief story, you will want to keep the verbs you use in the same tense. Recall, moving from tense to tense can be very confusing.
eg. Mrs. Mallory sees her returning son and, in her excitement, twisted her ankle rather badly. Her sister calls the doctor instantaneously.
In this example, the verb “twisted” is the only verb that shows up in the past tense. It should show up in the present tense, “twists,” or the other verbs should be switched to the past tense as well. Switching verb tenses upsets the time sequence of narration.
“The Literary Present”
When you quote directly from a text or allude to the events in a story (as in a brief plot summary), you should use “the literary present.” We write about written works as if the events in them are happening now, even however the authors may be long dead. Quoting an essay, you would write,
eg. Annie Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when she lived in Virginia’s mountains. In the book’s chapter, “Eyeing,” Annie Dillard contends that “vision. is a deliberate bounty, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils” (17).
Here, both “wrote” and “lived” are in the past tense since they refer to Dillard’s life, not her writings. “Contends,” however, emerges in a statement about Dillard’s writing, so it is in the present tense.
When you write about fiction, you will also want to use the present tense.
eg. At the end of Of Mice and Studs. Lennie sees an enormous rabbit that chastises him, making him think of George.
eg. Mrs. Mallard, in “The Story of an Hour,” coos “‘free, free, free!'” after learning of her hubby’s supposed death.
The above examples are a plot summary and a direct quotation, both of which use the literary present. You can recall to write about literature in the present tense because you are presently reading or thinking about it. Every time you open a book it seems as tho’ the events are presently happening; every time you read an essay it is as tho’ you are presently speaking to the writer.
If you are writing a paper in another subject, notably the sciences and social sciences, these rules will not necessarily apply. Check with your professor for guidelines in your course.
In history classes, for example, the events you are writing about took place in the past, and therefore you should use the past tense across your paper. However, if you are citing articles in the paper, as you most likely should, then you should check with your professor to see if he or she would choose that you use the literary present or the past tense when referring to these articles.