English English language Grammar Usage

When the past is present

Q: Why do authors, when quoting an important but long-dead figure, usually say things like “Tolstoy writes” and “Jesus says” instead of “Tolstoy wrote” and “Jesus said”?

 A: When authors quote someone else’s words, they often use the present tense. This convention is sometimes called the “literary present,” and it’s not confined to long-dead figures.

You’ll see it in contemporary literary criticism and in other writing about authors both living and dead: “As Tacitus says …” or “In his earlier novels, Roth writes …” or “Here’s how Alan Furst describes ….”

The literary present is especially common in writings about literature, but the literature need not be fictional.

For example, the works of a historian can be referred to in the same way: “In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman writes …” or “Robert Caro portrays Johnson as ….”

Why the present tense? Because a literary work—no matter when it was created—presents itself to the reader in an unchanging present, as if it were being written as we read.

In other words, such a work is eternally alive to us as we experience it. And an author who writes about the work may use the literary present to convey this sense of immediacy.

However, when putting a literary work in a specific historical time, the past tense is generally used. “When Shakespeare wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Elizabeth’s court was ….”

We’ve written previously on the blog about a similar convention, the “historical present,” where the present tense is used to narrate events in the past.

We invented this example to illustrate the historical present in action: “Napoleon’s armies are starving. Snow blankets Moscow. The generals are wondering: Is retreat worse than annihilation?”

Both the literary present and the historical present are available to writers who want to create a feeling of immediacy. These devices aren’t mandatory though; they’re simply tools a good writer should know how to use.

An author might want to create a different effect altogether by using the past tense: “Hemingway really knew the score when he wrote …” or “Napoleon made a grave mistaken when he ….”

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