Literary Present Tense: Key Aspects

While attending elementary school, you learned about the existence of present, past, and future tenses from your teacher. Everything seemed to be simple and clear until you heard about “literary present tense” from your professor. Probably at this moment, you felt confused but calm down as it is not a new tense at all. It has some peculiarities that are explained in this article.

When is Literary Present Tense used?

In most cases, “literary present tense” means the same as “present tense”, and is used to tell about regular actions. But there is one peculiarity. You need to use it while discussing literature, films, and other artworks or writing reviews about them. It means that you should apply “literary present tense” not only in oral speech but while crafting essays as well. 

Why Present Tense?

You should discuss any type of artistic work in a persistent present, demonstrating that it is always present, always here. For instance, the book “Notebook” is the same piece of art as it was at the moment of writing, as it is not and as it will be many years forward from the present moment. Hence, you should write about it in the present tense. 

Things are different in the case of other subjects like science or history, for example. All historical events happened many years or even centuries ago, that’s why you should use the past tense to talk about them. If you conducted some research, you conducted it in the past. Hence, you also should discuss or write about the results using the past tense. The same is for experiments. 

Scientists hold them in the past, so you need to write about them in the past tense as well.

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Examples of Using the Literary Present Tense

If you can’t catch the main idea of using “literary present tense”, you are welcomed to look at some examples and clarify everything at once. 

Use Present Literary Tense for Discussing Literature and Other Arts

It doesn’t matter whether you are discussing the book or other artwork in general, or are talking about particular personalities and their actions. You need to use “literary present tense”, and outstanding works are proving this:

  • Willy Wonks presents many noteworthy characters;
  • The ghost mentioned in Hamlet tells unspoken thoughts of the main character;
  • Pictures of Picasso usually include storytelling details and a mix of themes.

Use Past Tense if Talking About the Author

When you talk about the author of a particular artwork and the actions that happened in the past, you need to use the past tense. 

These examples are demonstrating it:

  • Ray Bradbury published Dandelion Wine in 1957;
  • The Old Guitarist was painted by Pablo Ruiz Picasso.

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Cases Suitable for Using Both Tenses

Perhaps your teachers told you to decide on tense that you are going to use and do not switch from one to another; hence do not mix present and past tenses in one sentence. However, when you are discussing some artwork, you can break this rule, as you need to write about historical events and literary fiction at the same time. Look at these examples to catch the idea:

  • Even written decades ago, Ray Bradbury’s works focused on important themes that are common at present;
  • Leonardo Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa in the sixteenth century, but the painting is still among the greatest attractions in the Louvre. 

Both sentences include past tense in the first parts, as they mention the author/painter. The second parts require “literary present tense” as they discuss artworks. 

Use Literary Present Tense When Adding Quotes

You use signal phrases when you quote artwork, and they must be written in the present tense. For instance:

  • ‘There’s a cyclone coming, Em,’ he calls to his wife. ‘I’ll go look after the stock.’ Then he runs toward the sheds where the cows and horses are kept;
  • In the Happy Prince, the swallow asks, “Who are you?”, and he answers, “I am the Happy Prince.” “Why are you weeping then?” asks the Swallow; and the prince replies, “You have quite drenched me.”

Mind, you should use proper citation if you are quoting some characters as you are mentioning their exact phrases. 

Take it Easy

Of course, keeping all these rules and nuances in mind may be stressful for you, but don’t feel too tense. Read the examples of using “literary present tense” once again, and practice as much as possible. You can always approach a professional editor and get top-quality assistance on your particular case. Discussing an artwork or writing an essay will not be a stress for you with reliable helping hands besides.