Using Present Tense
The Literary Historical Present Tense
Some teachers in the humanities will tell you to use present tense when quoting, which can be confusing; weren’t these sources written in the past? Shouldn’t you use past tense? To make sense of this, try using the “Book Approach” when discussing literary or historical texts or discussing the context of authors’ lives.
Take this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as an example:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Consider that, as you read, the author is still “alive” in the sense that they are communicating with you. The following sentence demonstrates a technique called the “literary present” or the “historical present”:
Describing the need for whites and blacks to unite for social transformation, King explains, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Even if you are summarizing, you can still use the “literary present” or “historical present” because you are responding to your received understanding of the author’s words:
In this work, King describes the need for whites and blacks to unite for social transformation, seeing such a duty as imperative, even if the consequences of racism do not immediately affect everyone.
Now, if you are discussing fact about the author’s life, you are describing actions in the past or the past-present. Your words, without quotes, refer to a statement of fact:
“While incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 for peacefully protesting racial inequality, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. employed many kinds of rhetoric to convince local white ministers to support his peaceful mission to achieve rights for African-Americans.”
The APA Exception
Remember that APA format does not use the “historical present,” even when quoting, instead using the past or present-past tense to summarize an author’s words or introduce a quote. It’s a good idea to check with your instructor, especially in a science class, before writing an essay to see what tense you should use when quoting a source.