Grammatical tense in essays

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1. The grammatical tense in which an essay is written should be chosen according to academic conventions. If your subject is connected with an earlier historical period, then the past tense will probably be suitable. If it is contemporary, then the present tense might be preferred.

2. When dealing with a literary text, the easiest manner of discussing its events and characters is to use the present rather than the past tense. The present tense is less cumbersome to deal with, and you are less likely to become grammatically confused when dealing with topics from different points in the chronology of events.

3. The following example illustrates a perfectly acceptable manner of presenting an argument in an essay on Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations:

When Pip leaves Joe and the forge to enjoy his newfound expectations in London, he feels a momentary twinge of doubt as he notices that …

4. The present tense is a ‘neutral’ mode of discussion from which you can easily move back momentarily into the past and even forward into the future tense when necessary:

When Pip leaves Joe and the forge … whereas earlier he had been closer to him, just as he will later become again when they are reconciled following the novel’s denouement …

5. This may seem slightly odd at first, because most fictional narratives are themselves written in the past tense. The logic of this procedure however is that your essay is dealing with a text that will never change. Pip will always leave the forge, just as he and Joe will always be reconciled.

6. Essays dealing with history or political issues of the past are normally and most logically written in the past tense:

Within six weeks of the revolution Cossack armies and other ‘white’ forces were already mustering in south-eastern Russia; the Ukraine, egged on by French and British promises, was in a state of all but open hostilities against the Soviet power; the Germans, in spite of the armistice, were a standing threat in the west.

E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923: Volume One, London: Penguin: 1984, p.167

7. Some people try to give a sense of vividness or urgency to their writing by casting their narratives in what’s called the ‘dramatic present’ tense. The result is often modish and posturing. This should be avoided in academic writing.

Within six weeks of the revolution Cossack armies and other ‘white’ forces are already mustering in south-eastern Russia; the Ukraine, egged on by French and British promises, is in a state of all but open hostilities against the Soviet power; the Germans, in spite of the armistice, are a standing threat in the west.

8. When writing scientific reports, the past tense is generally to be preferred. ‘The solubility of potassium dichromate in chloroform was measured’. However, when the item at issue is a fact or a constant, it may be spoken of in the present tense because it will not change: ‘The dipole moment of hydrogen chloride is 1.05 Debye’.

© Roy Johnson 2003


Writing skills links

grammatical tense Tutorials, guides, and books, on writing skills

Red button Writing skills – a bibliography

Red button Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook


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