Writing Resources

Verb Tenses – Literature

This handout is available for download in DOCX format and PDF format.


Use of the correct verb tense allows you to express clearly the time relationships among your ideas. When deciding which verb tense to use, aim for consistency, simplicity, and clarity. Whenever possible, keep verbs in the same tense (consistency), and use either the simple present or the past tense (simplicity). Above all, choose the verb tense that most clearly expresses the idea you want to convey (clarity). In general, use the present tense to describe actions and states of being that are still true in the present; use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past.

Below are some discipline-specific guidelines for how to use verb tenses effectively in literature and the humanities. For details on tenses in science writing, see handout “Verb Tenses—Science.”

Decribing the Text

Use the present tense to describe fictional events that occur in the text:

(This use of present tense is referred to as "the historical present.")

  • In Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Eve in the form of a serpent.
  • Voltaire's Candide encounters numerous misfortunes throughout his travels.

Use the present perfect tense to describe an event that occurs in the text previous to the principal event you are describing:

  • The governess questions the two children because she believes they have seen the ghosts.
  • Convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, Othello strangles her.

Use the past tense when referring to an event occurring before the story begins:

  • In the opening scenes of Hamlet, the men are visited by the ghost of Hamlet's father, whom Claudius murdered.

Providing Factual Information

Use the present tense to report your interpretations and the interpretations of other sources:

  • Odysseus represents the archetypal epic hero.
  • Flanagan suggests that Satan is the protagonist of Paradise Lost.

Use the past tense to explain historical context or elements of the author's life that occurred exclusively in the past:

  • Hemingway drew on his experiences in World War I in constructing the character of Jake Barnes.

Combining Fact and Fiction

When writing about literature, use both present and past tense when combining observations about fictional events from the text (present tense) with factual information (past tense):

  • James Joyce, who grew up in the Catholic faith, draws on church doctrine to illuminate the roots of Stephen Dedalus' guilt.
  • In Les Belles Images, Simone de Beauvoir accurately portrays the complexities of a marriage even though she never married in her lifetime.

Credit: Adapted from “Verb Tense,” Hamilton University Writing Center. 16 October 2017, https://www.hamilton.edu/academics/centers/writing/writing-resources/verb-tense.