Nothing says “start of academic year” better than early student papers that get snarled in verbs. Is it “Eliot writes” or “Eliot wrote”? “ “I lived in Vermont, which is always frigid in March” or “I lived in Vermont, which was always frigid in March”? Or, as Neal Whitman discussed last month, is it “The girl who was next to me was named Stephanie,” or “The girl who was next to me is named Stephanie”?
Each discipline probably has its own style guide on verb usage; at the very least, I know that MLA style and APA style differ on their approach to verb tense in referencing research. Whole books could be—and have been—written on the question of tense alone. I’m going to unpack only a small handful of verb usage, and I’ll stick to verbs present and past … and even then, it’ll take two posts.
The first thorny thicket students find themselves in has to do with critical discussion. Just for fun(!), let’s take Immanuel Kant, who lived almost three centuries ago; it stands to reason that everything he thought or argued, he argued in the past. Indeed, Wikipedia’s Kant entry uses past tense throughout the section on Kant’s biography and into the section on his philosophy, where we read, e.g., “Kant defined the Enlightenment as an age shaped by the Latin motto Sapere aude.” But then things start to slip. Kant’s work, we read, “reconciled many of the differences between the rationalist and empiricist traditions of the 18th century” and “has also been a starting point for many 20th century philosophers.”
OK, so all the guys from the 18th century are dead and some of the 20th-century minds are still ticking away. But then: “For the sake of morality and as a ground for reason, Kant asserted, people are justified in believing in God, even though they could never know God’s presence empirically.” Where, one might ask, did that “are” come from, and how does it mesh with that “could”? Finally, the Wikipedia entry seems to shift gear entirely: “Kant defines his theory of perception in his influential 1781 work The Critique of Pure Reason.” But wait! There’s a last nugget of past tense trailing behind—“Kant deemed it obvious that we have some objective knowledge of the world”—only a few paragraphs later.
No wonder our undergraduates are confused. “Write about literature in the present tense,” advises the MLA style manual. But when are Kant’s writings literature and when are they historical events?
Generally, we try to distinguish between biography and criticism. The biographical subject (Kant) lived in the past; everything he thought, said, and suffered belongs to the completed span of his life. His work lives on. When we use “Kant” in the sense of “all things Kantian,” we are actually using “Kant” as a sort of metonym. We are treating him (or “it”) as a force or argument that continues to be present in our lives. Sounds simple. When someone says, “Mozart was great,” we might want to know either the circumstances in which we was great (“He was a great jokester”) or how the greatness of his music has been compromised; when someone says, “Mozart is great,” she is expressing a love for Mozart’s music. Yet in actual writing, as the entry on Kant demonstrates, the lines between the life and the work are not so easily drawn, and the use of present or past is more art than science. Reading the Wikipedia entry on Kant, I don’t experience any “bump” in tense, even though the author writes the following sentences in close proximity and long after the biographical summary of Kant’s life is complete:
- Kant asserts that experience is based both upon the perception of external objects and a priori knowledge.
- Kant deemed it obvious that we have some objective knowledge of the world, such as, say, Newtonian physics.
- Judgments are, for Kant, the preconditions of any thought.
- Kant believed that all the possible propositions within Aristotle’s syllogistic logic are equivalent to all possible judgments.
We could spend a long time arguing why each of these statements demands the verb tense assigned to it, and why they all differ from student work that contends, for instance, “In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen pushed us to consider whether marriage was always about material advantage. Is Jane Austen merely a product of her time?” The long-term solution is the usual one: read, read, read. For the short term, I find teaching the notion of the personage as metonym to be useful, though hardly sufficient.
Next week: tense, fiction, and whether it’s safe to swim in Lake Huron.
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