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Past or Present? These Easy Rules Will Make Your Writing So Much Better

In the past weeks, I’ve been reading and marking lots of students’ essays. These always interest me very much, and not only because of the new or informative content. They also tell me about mistakes that are made a lot.

So I thought I’d talk about a typical mistake that you might find useful in your own writing:

Not being clear about whether what you write is in the past or present.

* Some weaker students happily tell about events in the past using the present tense. This is possible, when you’re telling a joke. Normally, however, you tell about past events in the past tense!

* Another error is using a mix of past and present. I suspect that students who make this mistake don’t know exactly which tense they should use. Or it could also be the case that they don’t know what the past tense forms look like. Even some advanced students have asked me what the past is of has, for instance. (It’s had.)

So first, let’s be clear on when to use Present or Past.

The Difference between Present and Past

As you can understand, you use past for things that happened in the past. The events can have happened this morning, or yesterday, or last year. All those are in the past.

Easy, right?

But: when you’re telling about a story in a book or in a movie, you tell this story in the present.

So this is Rule Number One: Stories in stories are told in the present.

For example, if you’re telling the story of the novel Wuthering Heights, or you’re telling what happened in the book or movie of the Hobbit, all this will be in the present tense.

Rule Number Two: Facts that are true now are told in the present.

If you say that elephants are big, this is a fact. So don’t say that they were big. That doesn’t make sense. Elephants always are big.

Rule Number Three is even simpler: Don’t switch between past and present in the same sentence or in the same story, unless there is a change of time. For instance there could be a discussion of events in the past, and then there are a number of facts that are still true today. The historical events would be told in the past, but the facts will be in the present tense.

Here is an example of such (bad) switching between past and present:

The first guitar had four strings. The strings are made from the small intestines of an animal.

This is an essay about the history of the guitar. So the story should be in the past. For that reason, it doesn’t make sense that the second sentence is in the present tense (“are made”). It should be in the past: were made. Because we’re talking about how the guitar was made in the past, and not today.

The correct sentences should be:
The first guitar had four strings. The strings were made from the small intestines of an animal.

guitarHugo Chisholm


Decide whether to use the past or the present in the following excerpts from a student essay about the history of the guitar.

You can do this exercise online here.

1 In the sixteenth century the five-string guitar _________ (is/was) introduced.

2 Although the five-stringer _________ (is/was) basically a four-string guitar with an extra string (the bass string), that string ___________ (becomes/became) very popular in all kinds of playing.

3 Also it _________ (has/had) frets; these ______ (are/were) the lines on the guitar that make the different notes.

4 It ___________ (is/was) believed to be invented in Spain.

5 The first electric guitar ________ (is/was) called Les Paul.

6 In 1930 there __________ (is/was) a factory of guitars in the United States.

7 The son of one of the employees was always fooling around with a broom and he ________ (starts/started) to play it. Workers put strings on the broom.

8 Ten years later the radio ________ (is/was) invented.

9 The boy came and asked them to put a transmitter on the broom; then everybody ___________ (can/could) see how you can create an electric guitar.

10 It _________ (is/was) a great invention.

11 The boy’s name was Les Paul. He __________ (is/was) one of the greatest guitar players in history.

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