Student Question

Is it better to answer a question in past or present tense?

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The general rule is to use the past tenses when writing about history, but the present tenses when writing about fictional works. For, literary works and other artistic creations such as film and painting, sculpture and the like are assumed to exist in an eternal present.

So, when writing about writers or artists as they express themselves in their work, the analyst should remain in the present tense, basic form, and use the present perfect tense basic form to establish actions that have occurred prior to the others.

According to Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, a reference text employed in many colleges and universities, there are several conventions that should be adhered to when writing about literature:

  1. The present tense is used in discussions of literary works.
  2. Documentation of sources follows certain formats.  MLA style is required.
  3. Quoting poetry involves several conventions:  For lines of verse, quotations are used around three or fewer lines in the text with a slash (/) with a space on each side to separate the lines.  Quotations of more than three lines should be indented one inch from the left-hand margin and double-spaced. Do not uses slashes at the ends of lines, and place the citation outside the final punctuation mark.
  4. Authors' name are referred to in standard ways: Use the full name of the author in the first reference and only the last name in all subsequent references regardless of the gender of the author.
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All the tenses in the English language are available to an educated person. The tense you use should be determined by the question and your answer. I am answering your question in the present tense, but I might want to give an example from a question I had answered in the past, and in that case I would probably switch to the past tense. I might switch to the future tense or the future conditional or the subjunctive, depending on what kind of question I was dealing with and what I wanted to answer. I believe I am writing in some sort of conditional tense right now, but it is long time since I have had to think about such matters. If you do a lot of writing, as well as a lot of reading of good writing, these choices become automatic. Probably the best policy is to answer in your own words, to tell the truth, and to use whatever tense and syntax is natural to you. James Thurber, one of the best American writers, said, "Don't get it right, get it written." Get something down on paper as a first draft, and then look it over and polish it until you're satisfied. If you want to judge the difference between answering in the present tense and the simple past, try writing a page or two in each tense and see which sounds best to you. You'll gain from the practice.

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