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Verb Tense for Literature Analysis Essays

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Verb Tense for Use When Discussing Literature


  1. General Rule: When discussing the events depicted in literature, use the present tense unless there is a strong reason not to. The assumption is that the events are always occurring at the present moment for the reader.



          Example: In Nathaniel Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," Robin comes to the city seeking career help from his powerful relative.

                         What he finds instead is total confusion. Everyone laughs at him when he asks for his kinsman. Finally he discovers the truth:

                         his kinsman has fallen from power and all Robin's dreams have fallen with him. Robin probably feels bitter that he believed**

                         his kinsman's offer of help two years earlier.


** Here the past tense is used because the that clause refers to an earlier event and feeling, both of which occurred before the time referred to in the rest of the sentence. In other words, in your retelling of the story, you are talking in the present tense about Robin's seeing his kinsman's defeat, but the clause refers to Robin's feelings two years earlier. Even without the time marker ("two years earlier"), common sense tells us the past tense is called for here.


 Example: In his "Qualities of the Prince," Machiavelli writes that it is better for a prince to be armed, because "among the other bad effects it causes, being disarmed makes you despised" (38).


Example: In her essay, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," Alice Walker discusses the history of African American women and describes how "they dreamed dreams no one knew—not even themselves, in any coherent fashion—and saw visions no one could understand" as a result of the silence inflicted upon them by lack of education and prejudice (232).


  1. When you are discussing the author in the act of writing, use the past tense for the verbs:


           Example: In 1832, Hawthorne wrote "My Kinsman, Major Molineux."


           Example: Alice Walker's parents were sharecroppers in Eatonton, Georgia. She participated in the Civil Rights Movement and published             novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and children's books.


  1. But if you are discussing what the author says in a work, use the present tense for the same reason that you use the present tense when speaking of the work:


          Example: At the beginning of the story, Hawthorne says that the King's appointments were unpopular.



          All of the above are EDITING concerns; do not worry about them until AFTER you've written your paper.





LeBlanc, Rene. "Verb Tense for Analysis of History and Literature." Student Learning Assistance Center. 2003. Texas State University at San Marcos.            12 April 2009. <http://gato-docs.its.txstate.edu/slac/Subject/Writing/Documentation-and-the-Writing-Process/Verb-Tense-for-Analysis-



"Verb Tense for Use When Discussing Literature." MIT Online Writing and Communication Center. 2001. Massachusettes Institute of Technology.

           12 April 2009 <http://web.mit.edu/writing/Resources/Writers/Process/literature.html>.

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