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Simple Present Tense | Examples, Use & Worksheet

Published on March 20, 2023 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on September 25, 2023.

The simple present tense is a verb form used to talk about habits, unchanging situations, facts, and planned events in the near future.

The simple present tense of most verbs is the infinitive form (e.g., “sing”). However, the third person singular (e.g., “he,” “she,” and “it”) takes an “s” at the end of the verb (e.g., “write” becomes “writes”).

Simple present tense forms

Table of contents

How to use the simple present, present simple vs. present continuous, how to form negatives, how to form questions, how to form the passive voice, worksheet: simple present vs. present continuous, other interesting language articles, frequently asked questions about the simple present tense.

The simple present is used to refer to habits , unchanging situations or states , general truths , and scheduled events in the future .

Most verbs in the simple present tense use the infinitive form (e.g., “run”). The only exception is the third person singular (used with “he,” “she,” “it,” and any singular noun), which is usually formed by adding “s” to the end of the verb.

I speak French.

The Earth revolves around the sun.

The simple present is also used along with future simple tense constructions to talk about a future action. In these instances, the simple present construction is usually preceded by a subordinating conjunction (e.g., “after,” “before,” “as soon as,” “when”).

Forming the third person singular

The third person singular is usually formed by adding “s” to the end of the verb (e.g., “run” becomes “runs”). However, this can vary depending on the verb’s ending.

  • I have a cat.
  • Sandra has an old bike.

Irregular verb: “Be”

The stative verb “be” is used in the simple present to refer to unchanging situations (e.g., “You are clever”) and to temporary present situations (e.g., “Ramone is hungry”). This verb changes in form more than any other, as shown in the table below.

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While the present simple is typically used to refer to habits, states, and facts, the present continuous is used to describe a temporary action that is currently taking place.

Justin is eating dinner right now. [describing a temporary action in the present] Note While most verbs in the present simple are not used to talk about temporary situations in the present, stative verbs (e.g., “be,” “have,” “want,” “know”) can be used in the simple present to describe temporary states of being.

These verbs are typically not used in the present continuous tense :

  • I am wanting ice cream.
  • I want ice cream.

For most subjects, negative statements are formed by adding “do not” (or the contraction “don’t”) between the subject and the verb . The third person singular uses “does not” (or “doesn’t”).

Abby doesn’t like traveling . Note Negative constructions in the simple present use the infinitive form of the verb, regardless of subject (i.e., the third person singular form never takes an “s”).

  • The clock doesn’t works .
  • The clock doesn’t work .

The verb “be” is made negative by adding the adverb “not” after the verb . This is the case for all subjects.

Even though he didn’t sleep much last night, Andrew is not tired. Note Don’t negate other verbs in the same way as “be,” by just adding “not” after the verb. This only applies to “be.” For other verbs, use “do not” or “does not” as described above.

  • Jamie exercises not much.
  • Jamie doesn’t exercise much.

To ask a yes–no question using the simple present, add “do” before the subject and the infinitive form of the verb. Again, the exception is the third person singular, which uses “does” instead of “do.”

To ask a question using a wh-word (an interrogative pronoun like “what” or an interrogative adverb like “when”), place the pronoun or adverb before “do” (or “does” for the third person singular).

What do you want?

Passive sentences are ones in which the subject is acted upon (rather than performing the action). In the simple present, the passive voice uses a conjugated form of the verb “be” along with a past participle .

The stray cat is fed by everyone in the neighborhood.

You can test your understanding of the difference between the simple present and the present continuous with the worksheet below. Fill in one of the two options in each sentence.

  • Practice questions
  • Answers and explanations
  • I _______ every morning before work. [run/am running]
  • Kevin _______ the kitchen right now. [cleans/is cleaning]
  • Humans _______ about 12 times per minute. [blink/are blinking]
  • The train _______ at 12 p.m. every day. [leaves/is leaving]
  • Allie _______ at the moment. [studies/is studying]
  • “Run” is correct. In this instance, the simple present is used to refer to a habit.
  • The present continuous form “is cleaning” is correct because it refers to a temporary action in the present.
  • The present simple form “blink” is correct. In this instance, it’s used to express a fact.
  • The present simple form “leaves” is correct. In this instance, it’s used to refer to a planned future event.
  • The present continuous form “is studying” is correct because it refers to a temporary action that is currently taking place.

If you want to know more about nouns , pronouns , verbs , and other parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations and examples.

Nouns & pronouns

  • Common nouns
  • Possessive nouns
  • Indefinite pronouns
  • Relative pronouns
  • Interrogative pronouns
  • Present perfect tense
  • Modal verbs
  • Conditional sentences
  • Subjunctive mood
  • Imperative mood
  • Interjections
  • Determiners
  • Prepositions

In the simple present tense , the stative verb “be” is used to describe temporary present situations (e.g., “I am tired”) and unchanging situations (e.g., “Laura is a doctor”). The form of the verb varies depending on the subject:

  • The first person singular uses “am” (e.g., “I am”)
  • The third person singular uses “is” (e.g., “he is,” “she is,” “it is”)
  • All other subjects use “are” (e.g., “you are,” “we are,” “they are”)

The “-ing” form of a verb is called the present participle . Present participles can be used as adjectives (e.g., “a thrilling story”) and to form the continuous verb tenses (e.g., the present continuous : “We are partying ”).

Gerunds also use the “-ing” form of a verb, but they function only as nouns (e.g., “I don’t enjoy studying ”).

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

Ryan, E. (2023, September 25). Simple Present Tense | Examples, Use & Worksheet. Scribbr. Retrieved February 20, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/verbs/simple-present/
Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar . Oxford University Press.
Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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Eoghan Ryan

Other students also liked, imperative mood | definition, examples & use, the subjunctive mood | definition & examples, verb tenses in academic writing | rules, differences & examples.

Writing Studio

How (and why) do i write in literary present tense.

In an effort to make our handouts more accessible, we have begun converting our PDF handouts to web pages. Download this page as a PDF:  How (and why) do I write in literary present tense? Return to Writing Studio Handouts

Literary works, paintings, films, and other artistic creations are assumed to exist in an eternal present. Therefore, when you write about writers or artists as they express themselves in their work, use the present tense.

Past or Present Tense? A Basic Guideline

You should use the past tense when discussing historical events, and you should use the literary present when discussing fictional events.

Context matters , though, so take a look through the more granular guidelines below and keep in mind that expectations and conventions around the tense we use to write about textual sources we are engaging or analyzing may differ between disciplines (for instance, in a history class you might be told to write about texts using past tense that you would be expected to discuss in the ‘literary present’ in an English class.).

Taking a Closer Look: Context-Based Guidelines

1. when commenting on what a writer says, use the present tense..

  • Example: “Dunn begins his work with a view into the lives and motivations of the very first settlers.”
  • Example: “Through this anecdote, Richter illustrates common misconceptions about native religion and shows why missionary attempts were less than successful.”

2. When describing an author’s work, however, use the past tense.

  • Example: “In 1966, Driss Chraïbi published La Civilisation, ma Mère! “

3. When you are writing about a certain historical event (even the creation of a literary or artistic work), use the past tense.

  • Example: “Henry Fielding wrote in the eighteenth century.”
  • Example: “Picasso produced a series of sculptures.”

4. When discussing events in a literary work (novel, story, play, or poem) always use the present tense, unless there is a shift in the time frame within the world of the text.

  • Example: “Evelyn then rips into the carefully wrapped package and finds the greatest gift she has ever received. Her eyes fill with tears as she gazes at the jewel, but Philip does not know that these tears are the results of more than surprised joy. Evelyn is suffering from guilt as she compares this present to the shoddy gift that she bought* for her beau.”

*“ Bought ” is in past tense because the buying of the present occurred before the described set of events.

  • Example: “In Michelangelo’s painting, Christ judges the world.”
  • Example: “Johnson’s characters journey to Cairo.”
  • Example: “Plato argues without much conviction.”
  • Example: “Paul writes about the hardships he has endured.”

5. Sometimes a sentence must employ both present and past tense.

  • Example: “The first part of the poem, which she completed in 1804, describes the effects of isolation from society.”
  • Example: “Aeschylus’ drama is concerned with what happens to Orestes after he has killed his mother.”

Final Tips and Reminders

Remember: it is important to stay consistent..

Moving between verb tenses can be confusing for your reader. Examine your changes of tense very carefully and make sure there is a logical reason for them.

Style Tip: Keeping Sentence-Level Tense Shifts Manageable

If you need to shift tense more than three times in a single sentence, consider breaking up the sentence into a couple of shorter sentences to maintain reading ease.

Last revised: 8/10/2007 | Adapted for web delivery: 07/2021

In order to access certain content on this page, you may need to download Adobe Acrobat Reader or an equivalent PDF viewer software.

Purdue Online Writing Lab Purdue OWL® College of Liberal Arts

Introduction to Verb Tenses

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This handout explains and describes the sequence of verb tenses in English.

Only two tenses are conveyed through the verb alone: present (“sing") and past (“sang"). Most English tenses, as many as thirty of them, are marked by other words called auxiliaries. Understanding the six basic tenses allows writers to re-create much of the reality of time in their writing.

Simple Present: They walk.

Present Perfect: They have walk ed .

Simple Past: They walk ed .

Past Perfect: They had walk ed .

Future: They will walk.

Future Perfect: They will have walk ed .

Usually, the perfect tenses are the hardest to remember. Here’s a useful tip: all of the perfect tenses are formed by adding an auxiliary or auxiliaries to the past participle, the third principal part.

1 st principal part (simple present): ring, walk

2 nd principal part (simple past): rang, walked

3 rd principal part (past participle): rung, walked

In the above examples, will or will have are the auxiliaries. The following are the most common auxiliaries: be, being, been, can, do, may, must, might, could, should, ought, shall, will, would, has, have, had.

Present Perfect

The present perfect consists of a past participle (the third principal part) with "has" or "have." It designates action which began in the past but which continues into the present or the effect of which still continues.

1. Simple Past : “Betty taught for ten years.” This means that Betty taught in the past; she is no longer teaching.

2. Present Perfect : “Betty has taught for ten years.” This means that Betty taught for ten years, and she still teaches today.

1. Simple Past : “John did his homework so he can go to the movies.” In this example, John has already completed his homework.

2. Present Perfect : “If John has done his homework, he can go to the movies.” In this case, John has not yet completed his homework, but he will most likely do so soon.

Present Perfect Infinitives

Infinitives also have perfect tense forms. These occur when the infinitive is combined with the word “have.” Sometimes, problems arise when infinitives are used with verbs of the future, such as “hope,” “plan,” “expect,” “intend,” or “want.”

I wanted to go to the movies.

Janet meant to see the doctor.

In both of these cases, the action happened in the past. Thus, these would both be simple past verb forms.

Present perfect infinitives, such as the examples below, set up a sequence of events. Usually the action that is represented by the present perfect tense was completed before the action of the main verb.

1. I am happy to have participated in this campaign! The current state of happiness is in the present: “I am happy.” Yet, this happiness comes from having participated in this campaign that most likely happened in the near past. Therefore, the person is saying that he or she is currently happy due to an event that happened in the near past.

2. John had hoped to have won the trophy. The past perfect verbal phrase, “had hoped,” indicates that John hoped in the past, and no longer does. “To have won the trophy” indicates a moment in the near past when the trophy was still able to be won. Thus, John, at the time of possibly winning the trophy, had hoped to do so, but never did.

Thus the action of the main verb points back in time; the action of the perfect infinitive has been completed.

Past Perfect

The past perfect tense designates action in the past just as simple past does, but the past perfect’s action has been completed before another action.

1. Simple Past : “John raised vegetables.” Here, John raised vegetables at an indeterminate time in the past.

2. Past Perfect : “John sold the vegetables that he had raised .” In this sentence, John raised the vegetables before he sold them.

1. Simple Past : “Renee washed the car when George arrived.” In this sentence, Renee waited to wash the car until after George arrived.

2. Past Perfect : “Renee had washed the car when George arrived.” Here, Renee had already finished washing the car by the time George arrived.

In sentences expressing condition and result, the past perfect tense is used in the part that states the condition.

1. If I had done my exercises, I would have passed the test.

2. I think Sven would have been elected if he hadn't sounded so pompous.

Further, in both cases, the word if starts the conditional part of the sentence. Usually, results are marked by an implied then . For example:

If I had done my exercises, then I would have passed the test.

If Sven hadn’t sounded so pompous, then he would have been elected.

Again, the word then is not required, but it is implied.

Future Perfect

The future perfect tense is used for an action that will be completed at a specific time in the future.

1. Simple Future : “On Saturday, I will finish my housework.” In this sentence, the person will finish his or her housework sometime on Saturday.

2. Future Perfect : “By noon on Saturday, I will have finished my housework.” By noon on Saturday, this person will have the housework already done even though right now it is in the future.

1. Simple Future : “You will work fifty hours.” In this example, you will work fifty hours in the future. The implication here is that you will not work more than fifty hours.

2. Future Perfect : “You will have worked fifty hours by the end of this pay period.” By the end of this pay period, you would have already worked fifty hours. However, as of right now, this situation is in the future. The implication here is that you could work more hours.

1. Judy saved thirty dollars. (past—the saving is completed)

2. Judy will save thirty dollars. (future—the saving has not happened yet)

3. Judy has saved thirty dollars. (present perfect—the saving has happened recently)

4. Judy had saved thirty dollars by the end of last month. (past perfect—the saving occurred in the recent past)

5. Judy will have saved thirty dollars by the end of this month. (future perfect—the saving will occur in the near future, by the end of this month)

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Verb Tenses

What this handout is about.

The present simple, past simple, and present perfect verb tenses account for approximately 80% of verb tense use in academic writing. This handout will help you understand how to use these three verb tenses in your own academic writing.

Click here for a color-coded illustration of changing verb tenses in academic writing.

Present simple tense

The present simple tense is used:

In your introduction, the present simple tense describes what we already know about the topic. In the conclusion, it says what we now know about the topic and what further research is still needed.

“The data suggest…” “The research shows…”

“The dinoflagellate’s TFVCs require an unidentified substance in fresh fish excreta” (Penrose and Katz, 330).

“There is evidence that…”

“So I’m walking through the park yesterday, and I hear all of this loud music and yelling. Turns out, there’s a free concert!” “Shakespeare captures human nature so accurately.”

Past simple tense

Past simple tense is used for two main functions in most academic fields.

“…customers obviously want to be treated at least as well on fishing vessels as they are by other recreation businesses. [General claim using simple present] De Young (1987) found the quality of service to be more important than catching fish in attracting repeat customers. [Specific claim from a previous study using simple past] (Marine Science)

We conducted a secondary data analysis… (Public Health) Descriptional statistical tests and t-student test were used for statistical analysis. (Medicine) The control group of students took the course previously… (Education)

Present perfect tense

The present perfect acts as a “bridge” tense by connecting some past event or state to the present moment. It implies that whatever is being referred to in the past is still true and relevant today.

“There have been several investigations into…” “Educators have always been interested in student learning.”

Some studies have shown that girls have significantly higher fears than boys after trauma (Pfefferbaum et al., 1999; Pine &; Cohen, 2002; Shaw, 2003). Other studies have found no gender differences (Rahav and Ronen, 1994). (Psychology)

Special notes

Can i change tenses.

Yes. English is a language that uses many verb tenses at the same time. The key is choosing the verb tense that is appropriate for what you’re trying to convey.

What’s the difference between present simple and past simple for reporting research results?

  • Past simple limits your claims to the results of your own study. E.g., “Our study found that teenagers were moody.” (In this study, teenagers were moody.)
  • Present simple elevates your claim to a generalization. E.g., “Our study found that teenagers are moody.” (Teenagers are always moody.)

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Biber, Douglas. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English . New York: Longman.

Hawes, Thomas, and Sarah Thomas. 1997. “Tense Choices in Citations.” Research into the Teaching of English 31 (3): 393-414.

Hinkel, Eli. 2004. Teaching Academic ESL Writing: Practical Techniques in Vocabulary and Grammar . Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Penrose, Ann, and Steven Katz. 2004. Writing in the Sciences: Exploring the Conventions of Scientific Discourse , 2nd ed. New York: Longman.

Swales, John, and Christine B. Feak. 2004. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills , 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Home / Book Writing / Writing in Present Tense: The Secret to This Popular Writing Style

Writing in Present Tense: The Secret to This Popular Writing Style

Writing a novel or short story in the present tense can be exciting. It feels like everything is happening as you write the words. This is similar to what happens when you read a story written in the present tense. 

But just because it's exciting and immediate doesn't mean it's right for every story. Once you understand the benefits and drawbacks of writing in the present tense, you can determine whether it's the right tense choice for your story. 

  • What defines the present tense in fiction.
  • How to write in the present tense (with examples). 
  • Pros and cons of present tense writing.

Table of contents

  • What is the Present Tense in Fiction?
  • The Simple Present Tense
  • The Present Progressive Tense
  • The Present Perfect Tense
  • The Present Perfect Progressive Tense
  • Present Tense Books to Read
  • Benefits of Present Tense Writing
  • Drawbacks of Present Tense Writing
  • Check Your Genre
  • Consider Characters and Timeline
  • Changing Tenses
  • Still Not Sure? Try Both!
  • Writing in Present Tense: Conclusion

The present tense is a type of grammatical tense used to explain events as though they're happening right now. While this is generally not the way people tell each other stories, it has become increasingly popular in fiction in recent years. 

Here's an example of the present tense:

I'm waiting for the bus when I notice the man. Something about his body language bothers me. I have seen him before, but I can't remember where. Now I straighten as he approaches , as if making myself look bigger will force him to think twice if he means me harm. This is silly because I stand just a hair above five feet tall on my best day. The man passes me on the sidewalk, leaving me feeling a mixture of relief and self-recrimination. I've been prone to anxiety for years, but this is ridiculous.

There's a lot to talk about in that passage, but we'll get to it all as we go through this post. For now, just note the use of the present tense verbs, which are bolded above. Some are action verbs, while others (like “is”) are state-of-being verbs. 

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Understanding the Present Tense: The Four Tenses

Even if you aren't technically familiar with the present verb tense, chances are you know it when you see it. If you're like many writers, you have an instinctive understanding of both major tenses used in fiction writing: the present and the past. This simply comes from all the reading you've done over your life. 

While this is a good place to start, it pays to develop a deeper understanding. After all, this is the best way (along with practice) to master the craft of writing. So let's get into it without delay!

There are four verb tenses in the present tense that every writer should be familiar with . These are simple present, present perfect, present progressive, and present perfect progressive. The two you'll be using most while writing present tense fiction are the simple present tense and the present progressive tense, so we'll start with those. 

This is the simplest and most immediate form of the present tense. It's used to describe actions taking place now. This can be for single actions or habitual ones. Most of the passage above is written in simple present, but here are some specific examples:

Something about his body language bothers me. 

Now I straighten as he approaches . . . 

This is silly because I stand just a hair above five feet tall on my best day. The man passes me on the sidewalk. . .

All the action described above is happening in the story's present — your timeline anchor when writing in the present tense.  

Now let's look at the next most common form of the present tense used in fiction. 

Sometimes called present continuous, this verb tense is used to describe action that is ongoing in the present tense. There are two examples of present progressive in the passage above:

I'm waiting for the bus . . . 

. . . leaving me feeling a mixture of relief and self-recrimination.

The character is still waiting for the bus when she notices the man. It's an ongoing action. Same with the feeling she has after the man passes and she realizes she's not in danger. 

Present perfect is used to describe actions that have already been completed before the story's “now.” It can also describe habitual past actions. Here's the only example from the passage:

I have seen him before, but I can't remember where.

The character has seen him before, in the past, making this an action started and completed in the past.  

Sometimes called present perfect continuous, this tense is used to describe actions that were started in the past but continue in the literary present. Here's the only example from the passage:

I've been prone to anxiety for years, but this is ridiculous.

You can usually tell present perfect progressive by the use of “have” and “been” together. In this case, she started suffering from anxiety in the past (years ago) and is still suffering in the present. It's a continuous action.

As I’m sure you already know, it’s beneficial to read books written in the present tense if you hope to write one yourself. There are a number of present-tense books you can read from various eras. Here are some of the most notable:

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Dead Girls Can't Tell Secrets by Chelsea Ichaso

As mentioned above, the primary reason many authors use the present tense is for the sense of immediacy. It gives the story a cinematic feel that is hard to replicate when writing in the past tense. 

It also happens that the present tense can provide for a more intimate relationship with the narrator and/or the POV character . This can be ideal if your plot uses an unreliable narrator to pack a twist at the end. 

Finally, from a writing point of view , some authors find it simpler to write a present-tense story than a past-tense story. In the past tense, you have access to all twelve tenses in the English language. In the present tense, you really only use four, with an occasional past perfect tense thrown in during a flashback. This can make things simpler during the writing and editing process. 

The factors that make present tense writing great for some stories serve to make it less than ideal for others. The present tense can lend a story that takes place over a short period a sense of immediacy. But it can make stories with longer timelines seem awkward or strained. After all, it's hard to jump around in time smoothly while writing in present tense. 

The factors that can make present-tense writing ideal for stories with one or two point-of-view characters also limit its usefulness in stories with larger casts. Not only is it harder to delve naturally into a secondary character's background or motivations, but it can give the reader whiplash when you jump around from character to character in this kind of writing. 

Finally, a considerable drawback of present-tense writing is that many readers don't like it. While it is slowly getting more popular, especially in YA novels, it's still not the preferred style of many readers. This is why it's crucially important to pay attention to the genre before opting for this tense. 

Tips for Writing in the Present Tense

Now that we've covered the four primary tenses you'll use when writing a present tense novel, let's dive into some tips to help you decide whether present tense is ideal for your story. 

If you plan to become a professional writer, then you'll likely want to write to market. By paying attention to what readers of your genre like, you can write something that will have wide reader appeal. This is a great way to give your book the best chance of success . 

So before you decide on present or past tense, take a look at your genre and see what tense most other authors (especially ones you like) are using. Let this influence your decision.

Conversely, if you’re writing just for the pleasure of it, you won’t need to worry about wide reader appeal. There’s certainly nothing wrong with concentrating fully on writing the book you want to write. 

While it's entirely possible to jump around from character to character and across time in a present-tense narrative, it's not easy to do well. Since this writing tense feels so immediate, it can be jarring to jump ahead a week or a day—even an hour. 

This is why present-tense novels tend to stick with a small number of POV characters (often only one) and take place over a relatively short period of time. So if you have a wide cast of characters all in different places or times, then consider carefully writing in the present tense.  

We covered the four primary tenses you'll use when writing a story in the present tense. When you move from one of these tenses to another, it's called a tense shift. This is not the same as a tense change. 

When you change to a different tense—like from present to past—there needs to be a clear reason for it. If you're shifting briefly to simple past to relay a past event before coming back to the present moment, this is okay. It's just not a good idea to alternate between these two tenses for significant chunks of the book. 

For example, think carefully before doing something like writing certain chapters in the present tense while writing others in past. It's possible to craft a great story doing this, but it's certainly not the norm and it's not easy. 

If, after reading this far, you're still not sure whether to use past or present tense, consider writing a couple of chapters of your story in both . Once you're done, step away from them for a few days or a week (or a month!), and then come back and read them with fresh eyes. This should help you determine which tense is right for your story.  

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Writing in the present tense takes some getting used to. After all, this is not the natural way we tell stories. But that doesn't mean you should discount it altogether. It's a tool to keep your writer's toolbox. And once you understand it well, you can take it out and use it with ease when you need it. 

To get used to writing in the present tense, consider short stories . Not only does the present tense work well for short fiction , but it's a great way to practice. This can help you pay attention to the benefits and drawbacks of the present tense before tackling a full-length novel. 

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Past, Present, and Future Tense in Essays: How to Switch

Past, Present, and Future Tense in Essays: How to Switch

Past, Present, and the Future Tenses in Your Essay

Past, Present, and the Future Tenses in Your Essay

Choosing the correct grammatical tense for your essay can be a challenge. You have to decide whether to use past, present, or future tense. A wrong choice impacts your essay negatively. It will lack clarity and flow. This is not a situation that you ought to find yourself in.

Most students struggle with choosing the right tense. For some, it is due to the lack of guidance on using grammatical tenses. Others are careless with their writing. The result is a poorly written essay that a reader cannot understand. However, it is a problem that you can deal with once and for all.

how to write essays in present tense

Reading the instructions will enlighten you on which tense to use in writing your essay. Your tutor can also guide you on how to use grammatical tenses. You get the guidelines of when to use a particular tense. The help prevents you from choosing the wrong tense.

The type of your essay also reveals which tenses you ought to use. All essays are not the same. They have some distinct rules that create a significant difference. You must be aware of those rules and follow them to the latter. For instance, using the right tense is something you must take seriously. 

Should an Essay be in Present, Past, or Future Tense?

using verb tenses

Many students might find it challenging to choose the right tense. Some are yet to learn by heart the rules governing the use of tenses. They end up making the wrong choice.

Ultimately, the impact of their essay score is negative. Fortunately, it is a problem you can work on. 

Every essay needs to be clear and engaging, where the reader needs an easier time reading it. But, that is not the case with all students. Some find themselves using the wrong tenses.

Instead of using the present tense, they write essays in the past tense. But perhaps they do not know when to use a present, past, or future tense.

You can use present, past, and future tense in your essay. But there is a catch. Before you write your essay, you must know which tense fits it. You can either get guidance from your tutor or do your research. Above all, ensure the tense you use is consistent and clear.

Most essay writers use the present tense. It is simple and direct to the point. You can write short sentences that are easier to read and understand. The reader will use little time to read your essay. It will not be tiring to read it since the message is clear.

The present tense is common in academic writing. It allows you to write about current states of events more candidly. By using the present tense, you can easily describe theories. It will be easier to explain an event that is happening now. Generally, the present tense is ideal for writing essays.

Instances to Use Present Tense in an Essay

present tense

You do not have to write every essay in the present tense. There are instances under which it becomes a must. At that juncture, you have to play ball.

You must shun the past and future tenses to make your essay consistent. Deviating from the present tense might distort your sentence structure thereby complicating your essay.

The present tense is ideal for creating a sense of immediacy. The reader gets to experience every action as it unfolds. It is easier to grasp the information the writer is passing across. The clarity in the essay engages the reader .

This is one of the reasons why writing in the present tense is common.

Writing an essay in the present tense is much easier. You can write your essay within the shortest time possible, and meeting deadlines will not be an issue. Your essay will be simple and clear to the point, without any sophistication.

Use present tense in an essay where you refer to existing facts. The present tense shows that the fact is indeed true. It becomes easier for the reader to believe in what you are writing. Also, it describes the findings of a study in the present tense. That is also the case when expressing people’s claims and opinions .

Instances to Use Past Tense in an Essay

You must be careful with the tense you use in your essay. Each tense does come with its demands. For instance, past tense is ideal for emphasizing that people do not accept a particular idea. Use past tense to describe that idea for easier understanding.

If your essay describes historical events, you have to use past tense. It makes the description clearer to the reader. This is a clear indication that they can get a picture of the turn of events. This is very crucial for the flow of your essay.

Reading it becomes engaging and enjoyable without any sense of struggling to understand ideas.

Instances to Use Future Tense in an Essay

the future tense

Not often do students use the future tense in essays. They either use present and past tenses, the former being the most common.

But some instances permit the use of future tense. It does play a significant role.

Use future tense to describe your essay’s research predictions, methods, and aims. It becomes easier to demystify what the researcher is up to.

Besides, if you recommend research sources or state the application of study findings, then use future tense. You can easily describe something that is yet to happen or likely to occur in the future.

Can You Combine All Tenses in Essay Writing?

You can also use all tenses in your essay. However, you need to take this step with a lot of caution. Remember, the reader needs to get your message. You have to do that with some pomp to make your essay an enticing read .

Combining all tenses will certainly do that job for you.

Describe the cause and impact of interlocking events in an essay by combining all tenses. Your target audience can now get the hang of the events from a much broader perceptive. However, you have to respect time settings.

using verb tenses

It is crucial to avoid any confusion that might distort your message. Ensure you get rid of any sophistication bound to disturb the flow of thoughts in your write-up.

Combining all tenses can be a win or a loss for you. It depends on the context of your essay. Besides, you need to mind your reader.

Your essay should be on a standard that is easier to comprehend. Thus, proceed with caution. 

Make your point in a manner that captures the reader’s attention. Using all tenses can help you achieve that feat. However, the tenses should not appear haphazardly. If you are not careful, you might make it hard for your reader to understand your insinuating description.

Choosing the right tense for your essay is fundamental. It ensures that you can engage your reader in a comprehensive context easily. It starts by knowing when to use present, past, and future tense or combine them.

If your essay is about current events, it must be in the present tense. The reader gets to know what is happening at the very moment.

Use past tense to write an essay on past events. Describing those events will be much easier. You will do it with clarity hence not causing any confusion. On the other side, the future tense suits the description of events yet to occur.

You can also use the future tense to predict events that are about to happen. And if you want to polish your essay, care to combine all tenses, but do it with caution.

Watch this video to learn more about this.

YouTube video

When not handling complex essays and academic writing tasks, Josh is busy advising students on how to pass assignments. In spare time, he loves playing football or walking with his dog around the park.

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  • English Grammar

Present tense

Level: intermediate

There are two tenses in English: past and present.

The present tense is used to talk about the present and to talk about the future .

There are four present tense forms:

We can use all these forms:

  • to talk about the present:
London is the capital of Britain. He works at McDonald’s. He is working at McDonald's. He has worked there for three months now. He has been working there for three months now.
  • to talk about the future:
The next train leaves this evening at 17.00. I'll phone you when I get home. He is meeting Peter in town this afternoon. I'll come home as soon as I have finished work. You will be tired out after you have been working all night.

Level: advanced

We can use present forms to talk about the past:

  • when we are telling a story:
Well, it 's a lovely day and I 'm just walking down the street when I see this funny guy walking towards me. Obviously he 's been drinking , because he 's moving from side to side …
  • when we are summarising something we have read, heard or seen:
I love Ian Rankin's novels. He writes about this detective called Rebus. Rebus lives in Edinburgh and he 's a brilliant detective, but he 's always getting into trouble. In one book, he gets suspended and they tell him to stop working on this case. But he takes no notice …

Hello, Coould you please help me to understand why we use present simple in this sentence After Howard finishes his studies he intends to work in his father's company. And can we make this sentence like this: Howard intends to work in his father's company after he will finish his studies

  • Log in or register to post comments

Hi .Mariia,

It's because of "after". The present simple is used to indicate a future action/situation in subordinate clauses with "after", "when", "before", "until", "as soon as", "if", "provided that" and some other conjunctions of time. For example:

  • When I arrive, I'll call you.  (not "when I will arrive")
  • I'll stay with you until you leave.  (not "until you will leave")
  • If it rains later, I'll cancel the trip.  (not "if it will rain")

The meaning of your final sentence is perfectly understandable but grammatically, it should be "... after he finishes his studies". I hope that helps to understand it!

LearnEnglish team

Thank you, Jonathan Your explanation really helps me to understand it

Hello, everybody. I would like to know if it is correct to add the word "tense" after names such as "Present Simple", "Present Continuous", "Past Simple, Past Continuous" etc. Is it correct to say the "Present Continuous Tense", for example? Also, is it correct to say that there are six simple and six continuous tenses in English? Is the word "tense" correctly used here? All the best, MarBe

It's an interesting question, and one that isn't as easy to answer as it may seem!

A tense can be defined technically as a type of verb conjugation that expresses time. When linguists analyse language, this is what they mean when they say "tense". For this reason, at the top of this page it says that English has only two tenses, present and past (e.g. work - worked ). Future actions are expressed using modal verbs (e.g. "will") or other structures (e.g. "going to"), so these aren't considered tenses because they don't involve verb conjugation. The same goes for structures such as continuous and perfect structures (these are called aspects, and they are made by adding auxiliary verbs rather than conjugating).

However, that is a technical definition. In more everyday discussions of language, as well as in English learning materials, people often use "tense" with a looser and wider meaning, including all of the structures mentioned above. Although it's technically incorrect to call "I will go ..." the future tense, for example, it's common for materials, teachers and students to do so.  

So I guess the answer to your question depends on how technical you need to be. Does that make sense?

Dear team, I wonder if you tell me the difference between the present continuous and 'll when they are used to refer to the future. For example: You're having a fever! Put on your coat and I'm taking you to see a doctor( or I'll take you to see a doctor). Also, I wonder if 'would take' works here. All the best Jones

Thanks for your question! "Will" is the right word here, because "will" is used when you make a decision at the moment of speaking. In this example, it seems like the speaker has only just noticed the other person's fever, so the speaker is making this decision spontaneously.

The present continuous normally shows a future action that has been organised and confirmed, and often it has been organised or confirmed with other people. For example, you could say  I'm taking Jane to see a doctor  if you have already made the doctor's appointment in advance, before the moment that you say this.

You may find our page on Future forms interesting. It has some more explanation and examples. If you have other questions, we welcome you to post your questions on that page.

I hope that helps!

Hello Teachers,

"Before I sever your head from your body, I ask you again, who are you?" I tell you straight!- not to quarrel with me. Why the writer has written ask you again not am asking you again. Why he uses simple present though it was an ongoing action and also for tell in the second sentence. Could you explain it?

Regards Jitu_jaga

Hello jitu_jaga,

This sounds like an older style of English, such as a Monty Python skit taking place in the middle ages. In older styles, a present simple form is acceptable.

All the best, Kirk LearnEnglish team

Hi sir, Is it possible to use Present tense to talk a thing/one' nature/ attribute even though it/ one has physically disappeared? like someone stands in front of their friend's grave and says " you are my best friend ever" not " you were my best friend ever"

or statements that similar to "Albert Einstein/ Leo is a genius of all time", "Mahamta Gandhi is a figure who everyone respects".

My point is to bring a opinion/ fact that, at least to me, is true to this present

I would say this explanation "when we are summarising something we have read, heard or seen:" is the answer of my problem

Thanks, I looking forward to your respon sir

Hello LittleBlueGreat,

It is possible to use the present simple to speak about general truths, which can include making statements about people who have passed away. In such cases, we're often making statements about their legacies or contributions more than we are about them as people with ordinary lives that they are living at the moment.

If I were standing before a friend's grave and speaking to them, I'd probably say 'You were my best friend ever'; although me speaking to them now means they are still alive for me in one sense, the fact that I'm remembering our time together also makes it clear they are gone. The fact that I'm saying it to them suggests I'm missing them, which means they aren't present. 

But I'm not saying it's impossible to say 'You are my best friend ever' in a situation like this. It's a very personal kind of thing, after all, and so I can't say for sure what someone else might be thinking.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best, Kirk The LearnEnglish Team

This page explains that there are two tenses in English. present and past. I want to read more about it. please help me.

is there not a future tense in English?

what about: will v1 will be v4 will have v3 will have been v4

Hi Prakash,

It's a good question. First, I should define what a tense is: it is a form of a verb that expresses time . For example,  take  and  took  are the present tense and past tense of the verb take.

Technically speaking,  will take  is not a form of the verb  take , because it is not made by changing the form of  take  itself. Instead, it is made by adding another verb ( will ) which supplies the future time meaning. That's why we can't call  will take  a tense.

However, in common and non-technical speaking, people do commonly say that  will + infinitive verb is the "future tense" (even though from a technical point of view, that term is incorrect).

I hope that helps to understand it.

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Jonathan.

Dear team hello, More and more people (are getting divorced)/(getting divorced) every year. Which one is the true answer? Thank you

Hi Hosseinpour,

It should be the first answer, as the present continuous needs the auxiliary verb "be" (here, in the form "are"). Another possible answer not listed here is "get divorced" (present simple).

Hello sir, More and more people (are getting divorced)/(getting divorced) every year. (Every year), can we use "present continuous" to talk about "a fact" such as this? Thank you

Hello Hosseinpour,

Yes, you can use continuous aspect like this. The continuous form emphasises that it is an ongoing process rather than a fixed fact.

Thank you for the help and time.

Hello, Everyone.

Could somebody help me understand why in task "Present Tense 3" the correct answer isn't Present Tense, but Present Perfect?

Thank you in advance.

Hi georgiatavares,

Good question! It's because at the end, the frog means "I've read it", in the present perfect. (That's why the frog shakes his head and rejects all the books that the chicken brought. He's already read them all.) 

The word "read" can be either (1) the present simple form and the imperative, or (2) the past participle. (1) and (2) have the same spelling, but different pronunciation. (2) is pronounced /red/ (the same as the colour). (That's the joke - "read it" sounds similar to the sounds that frogs make, at least to English ears.)

I hope that helps.

Hi there. "Do be careful" or "Be careful" which one is correct? Thanks in advance.

Hi Sajatadib,

Both are OK. The first one is more emphatic than the second one.

The use of tenses here is fine. The first verb ("perceived") is past simple because it describes a completed past event. The other verbs are in the present simple because they describe things that are general statements not fixed to specific points in time.

There is no rule which says that we are limited to a single time reference or verb form in a sentence. It's quite possible to use a past form and a verb form with future reference, for example:

Gene Roddenberry believed that one day humanity will travel beyond our solar system and spread throughout the galaxy.

This is an infinitive form. I'm sure you're familiar with the base form of the infinitive ( to do ), but there are many other forms:

to be done (passive infinitive)

to be doing (continuous infinitive)

to have done (perfect infinitive)

These forms carry the meaning you would expect: continuous forms denote something in progress, perfect forms have a retrospective sense etc. The exact meaning will depend on the context.

As far as your example goes, you could use to arrive and I don't think the meaning changes as the context makes it clear that you are talking about a time up to now. In fact, as the context is clear I think to arrive would be a better choice, stylistically speaking.

Dear team, There are some people who (can view) objects from 6 meters away with the same sharpness that a normal-sighted person (would have to move) in to 4.5 meters to achieve. Why this structure(would have to move) is used? I can not understand the relationship between (can view) and (would have to move). Thank you

The two verbs are not related in time or structure. The first describes the characteristics of certain people; the second describes a hypothetical point of comparison - you can insert an implied if-clause if you wish (...would have to move in to 4.5 metres if they wanted to achieve the same clarity).

You could change the first verb to talk about people in the past ('There were some people who could...') or to predict the existence of people in the future ('One day there will be some people who will be able to...') without changing the second verb form at all.

Peter The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter M, Thank you for your help, it was very useful.

Dear team, A new study by Palaeontologists at the University of Southhampton 1.(suggests/has suggested) four bones recently found on the Isle of Wight 2.(belong to / have belonged to) new species of theropod dinosaur, the group that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and modern-day birds. In this test,first part, recently shouts present perfect, but my feelings tell me go with the Present tense. The same issue with part two, also if I use (have belonged to) how will the sentence sound meaning-vice to the listener. Thank you

I too would probably use the present simple form for 1, but there's nothing wrong with using the present perfect form in a news report, for example.

For 2, only the present simple form works. The topic is the bones (which obviously still exist) and what species they are from, not the dinosaur (which is obviously long dead, even if it is a newly discovered species), so a present simple form is best; a present perfect form would sound very odd indeed.

Hope this helps. It's great that you are trying to make sense of texts that you find in your reading -- this is a great way to learn.

Dear Kirk, Now with the explanation, it makes sense. Thank you sir

Dear team, Researchers believe that gold nanoparticles may breathe new life into once-promising drug candidates, in particular, a compound designed to stop the spread of HIV that (was shelved/would be shelved) because of effects. Here (was shelved) is the right answer. Why (would be shelved) can not be the right answer? Thank you

Generally, we don't comment on exercises from elsewhere as we have no control over their quality or accuracy. If you have a question about a task from a book or website then the authors of the task are the people to ask.

In this example, the time reference is past. You are talking about a drug which +was designed+ to do something but which had problems and so was not used (it was +once promising+). The only option with a past time sense is 'was shelved'. The other option ('would be shelved') describes a possible later action.

Dear Peter, Thank you for your time and help.

The first sentence is the present perfect. But, the present perfect isn't usually used if you say the time ( one hour ago ). The past simple is usually used:  I reached school one hour ago . Also, the verb  reach  doesn't take a preposition, so delete 'at'.

The second sentence is correct. But it's the present simple, not the present perfect (i.e. the verb  have  is the main verb, not an auxiliary verb).

Have a look at our Present perfect page for more explanation. I hope it helps :)

Your example would mean that being selected for the school team helps to make the person tall, so it is not correct. What you mean is the other way round, and there are several ways to say it:

Being tall helps with being selected for the school team.
I was selected for the school team. It helps being tall!

In answer to your second question, if you use 'help with' then you don't need 'it'. There is a word 'tallness' but we wouldn't use it in this context. 'Being tall' (as above) or 'Height' is what we would use.

Hello again Nevı,

No, I'm afraid that's not correct. It helps + verb-ing here means 'this is of benefit (in achieving the goal)'.

You are trying to say that technology helps us to find new solutions, so you can say the following:

Technology is improving and it helps us to find new solutions for problems. Technology improving helps us to find new solutions for problems.

If you want to use the construction it helps + verb-ing then you need to remember that is it improvements in technology which help us find new solutions, not the other way round:

We are finding new solutions for problems. It helps having better technology! [having better technology makes it easier to find new solutions]

Hello Fiona,

The writer still has longings in the present.

'Until' is related to a different state: the cake was an object of research (...) and a favourite indulgence  until ... In other words, it is no longer an object of research or a favourite indulgence, but the longings have not gone away.

That depends on how you define 'tense'. The author of this grammar, Dave Willis, followed one tradition in which ' tense ' refers to a single-word verb form, but in most English language teaching contexts, you're right in thinking that people usually refer to 12 tenses. 

We have a page that covers five of the most salient grammatical differences between  British and American English . There are others, but most are minor, and really most of the differences between the two varieties are in the area of vocabulary and pronunciation more than in grammar.

Despite these differences, the two varieties (each of which is actually composed of many different varieties) are very similar and in most cases entirely mutually comprehensible. As someone who grew up in American English but now works mostly with speakers of British English, I can assure you of this from personal experience.

All the best,

Hello Timothy555,

Yes, I'd say there's no difference in meaning, though there are some minor differences in terms of use. One example would be the tendency in American English to use the simple past to speak of a recent event, which in many cases would be expressed with a present perfect in British English.

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How to Use Present Tense in an Academic Essay

The present tense gives an essay a more immediate tone than the past tense.

Academic essays showcase students’ abilities to present their thoughts on a topic in an organized manner. What tense should be used in academic essays is a topic that sparks debate among some people. It is sometimes appropriate to use the present tense in academics if it is executed properly.

Explore this article

  • Consistency

1 Definition

The present tense conveys what is happening now. However, the present tense can also be used to convey future times as well as past times, depending on the form of the present tense used. It may also convey habitual, ongoing or constant actions. Various forms of the present tense exist. The present simple tense describes present activities, facts, universal truths, habits, permanent situations, arrangements, narrations and events that are certain to happen (e.g. "I decide.") The present perfect tense conveys actions that happened at an unknown time before the present, actions in the past that have an effect on the present and actions that began in the past and continue into the present (e.g. "I have decided.") The present continuous tense expresses actions that are happening at the moment of speaking, such as tendencies or trends (e.g. "I am deciding.") Finally, the present perfect continuous conveys actions that started in the past and continue in the present, actions that have recently stopped and temporary actions. (e.g. "I have been deciding.")

The present tense is more appropriate for certain academic subjects than others. For example, the present is acceptable for science papers that deal with facts that are applicable to all time. It is also ideal for literary papers when the writer is describing actions in a literary work. However, it might not be as appropriate for history papers in which past actions are discussed. Within the humanities, it is generally best to use the present tense. Many academic essays center around research, so using the correct present tense can convey the status of the research to the readers. For example, the present perfect tense implies that the research is generally accepted and also currently relevant.

The formatting style of the academic essay also influences whether or not the present tense is acceptable. For example, the MLA style sheet prefers present tense for papers as well as in citations. The APA style sheet calls for the writer to use either the present perfect tense or the past tense. However, the Chicago Manual of Style prefers the past tense for academic essays.

4 Consistency

Consistency is important in academic essays. If an essay began with the present tense, then it should generally use the present tense throughout the entire essay. This is not to say that it is never appropriate to switch tenses in academic essays, because it is necessary when the time frame switches from the present to the past. For example, when discussing a literary work, a writer might use the present tense, but then switch to the past tense to discuss the author of the work.

  • 1 University of Washington: Tenses in Writing
  • 2 Utah State University: Present-Tense Verbs
  • 3 Indiana University of Pennsylvania: Shifty Tenses

About the Author

Kayla Lowe has been a writer since 2007. Lowe is the author of "Maiden's Blush," a Christian fiction romance novel. She studied English and Business Administration at both Austin Peay State University and the University of Phoenix. Lowe has written for various online publications, including Yahoo!

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how to write essays in present tense

Writing tenses: 5 tips for past, present, future

Understanding how to use writing tenses is challenging. How do you mix past, present and future tense without making the reader giddy? What is the difference between ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tense? Read this simple guide for answers to these questions and more:

  • Post author By Jordan
  • 28 Comments on Writing tenses: 5 tips for past, present, future

Writing tenses - 5 tips for past present and future

What are the main writing tenses?

In English, we have so-called ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tenses in the past, present and future. The simple tense merely conveys action in the time narrated. For example:

Past (simple) tense: Sarah ran to the store. Present (simple) tense: Sarah runs to the store. Future (simple) tense: Sarah will run to the store

Perfect tense uses the different forms of the auxiliary verb ‘has’ plus the main verb to show actions that have taken place already (or will/may still take place). Here’s the above example sentence in each tense, in perfect form:

Past perfect: Sarah had run to the store. Present perfect: Sarah has run to the store. Future perfect: Sarah will have run to the store.

In the past perfect, Sarah’s run is an earlier event in a narrative past:

Sarah had run to the store many times uneventfully so she wasn’t at all prepared for what she saw that morning.

You could use the future perfect tense to show that Sarah’s plans will not impact on another event even further in the future. For example:

Sarah will have run to the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.

(You could also say ‘Sarah will be back from the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.’ This is a simpler option using the future tense with the infinitive ‘to be’.) Here are some tips for using the tenses in a novel:

1. Decide which writing tenses would work best for your story

The majority of novels are written using simple past tense and the third person:

She ran her usual route to the store, but as she rounded the corner she came upon a disturbing sight.

When you start drafting a novel or a scene, think about the merits of each tense. The present tense, for example, has the virtue of:

  • Immediacy: The action unfolds in the same narrative moment as the reader experiences it (there is no temporal distance: Each action happens now)
  • Simplicity: It’s undeniably easier to write ‘She runs her usual route to the store’ then to juggle all sorts of remote times using auxiliary verbs

Sometimes authors are especially creative in combining tense and POV. In Italo Calvino’s postmodern classic , If on a winter’s night a traveler ( 1979), the entire story is told in the present tense, in the second person. This has the effect of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ novel. To rewrite Sarah’s story in the same tense and POV:

You run your usual route to the store, but as you round the corner you come upon a disturbing sight.

This tense choice is smart for Calvino’s novel since it increases the puzzling nature of the story. In If on a winter’s night a traveler , you, the reader, are a character who buys Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler , only to discover that there are pages missing. When you attempt to return it, you get sent on a wild goose chase after the book you want.

Tense itself can enliven an element of your story’s narration. In a thriller novel, for example, you can write tense scenes in first person, present tense for a sense of danger unfolding now . Tweet This
A muffled shot. He sits up in bed, tensed and listening. Can’t hear much other than the wind scraping branches along the gutter.

Quote about verbs - Lynn Margulis

2. Avoid losing clarity when mixing tenses

Because stories show us chains and sequences of events, often we need to jump back and forth between earlier and present scenes and times. This is especially true in novels where characters’ memories form a crucial part of the narrative.

It’s confusing when an author changes tense in the middle of a scene. The fragmented break in continuity makes it hard to place actions in relation to each other. For example:

Sarah runs her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she came upon a disturbing scene.

This is wrong because the verbs do not consistently use the same tense , even though it is clear (from context) that Sarah’s run is a continuous action in a single scene.

Ursula K. Le Guin offers excellent advice on mixing past and present in her writing manual, Steering the Craft :

It is highly probable that if you go back and forth between past and present tense, if you switch the tense of your narrative frequently and without some kind of signal (a line break, a dingbat,a new chapter) your reader will get all mixed up as to what happened before what and what’s happening after which and when we are, or were, at the moment. Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

In short, make sure there are clear breaks between sections set in different tenses and that actions in the same timeline don’t create confusion by using different tenses for the same scene’s continuous events.

These 10 exercises for practicing tenses provide a fun way to focus on mastering the basics.

Get a professional edit for perfect tense

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3: Mix the tenses for colour and variety

Le Guin raises a good point about writing tenses. Le Guin describes the downside of telling a story almost exclusively in present tense:

It all rather sounds alike…it’s bland, predictable, risk-free. All too often, it’s McProse. The wealth and complexity of our verb forms is part of the color of the language. Using only one tense is like having a whole set of oil paints and using only pink. Le Guin, Steering the Craft

Instead mix different tenses where appropriate, but signal changes between time settings:

For example:

That morning, she had run her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she had come upon a disturbing scene. Apart from the glass and metal sprayed across the road like some outgoing tide’s deposit, there were what looked like two stretchers, mostly eclipsed from view by a swarm of emergency workers. Now, safely home, she decided to lie down, all the while trying to get that scene out of her mind.

Mixing the tenses can help to show the cause and effect of interlocking events. The use of the past perfect to describe the scene of an accident in the example above is effective because the past perfect shows what is already complete. It gives it an irrevocable quality, the quality of a haunting, living-on-in-memory event. Finished, but not finished in the character’s mind’s eye.

Ursula Le Guin quote - verb tenses

4. Practice showing shadowy past or present actions using verb forms

In addition to simple and perfect tenses, there are different ‘moods’ that show verbs as hypothetical or possible actions. In addition to the indicative mood (‘she runs to the store’) there is also the subjunctive mood (‘If she runs to the store’) and the potential mood (‘she may run to the store’).

The different moods are useful because they can show possibilities and scenarios that might have happened, or might still happen, under different circumstances. Here are examples for correct uses for each of the tenses (in active voice):

Subjunctive mood:

Present tense: If she runs to the store… Past tense: If she ran to the store… Future tense: If she should run to the store… Present perfect tense: If she has run to the store… Past perfect tense: If she had run to the store… Future perfect tense: If she should have run to the store….

Think of this mood as setting up a possibility. For example: ‘If she runs to the store, she better be quick because we’re leaving in 5.’

The potential mood helps us show shadowy, more hypothetical, uncertain scenarios:

Present tense: She may run to the store. Present perfect tense: She may have run to the store. Past perfect: She might have run to the store.

In each of these examples, the action is a possibility and the mood (using the various forms of ‘may’) shows this.

These verb moods in conjunction with tense are useful. They help us describe situations in which a narrator or character does not have full knowledge of events, or is wondering how events might pan out. They help to build suspense in the build-up to finishing a book .

5. Practice rewriting paragraphs in different tenses

It’s often easiest to get the hang of tense by doing. Pick a paragraph by an author and rewrite in each of the tenses. Here, for example, is a paragraph from David Sedaris’ essay, ‘Buddy, Can you Spare a Tie?’:

The only expensive thing I actually wear is a navy blue cashmere sweater. It cost four hundred dollars and looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner said the first time I brought it in. The sweater had been folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit. David Sedaris, ‘Buddy, Can you Spare a Tie?’ , When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Rewritten in past simple tense:

The only expensive thing I actually wore was a navy blue cashmere sweater. It cost four hundred dollars and looked like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner said the first time I brought it in. The sweater was folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.’

Here is the same passage in past perfect:

The only expensive thing I had actually worn was a navy blue cashmere sweater. It had cost four hundred dollars and had looked like it had been wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner had said, the first time I brought it in. The sweater had been folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she had stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.

The effect is of a character describing the defining experiences before another event (before buying an even more expensive item of clothing, for example). For example, you could write ‘Before I bought that lavish suit…’ before the paragraph.

To perfect writing tenses, make your own exercises and practice rewriting extracts from your story in each tense to see the changing effect this has on your narrative.

Do you need feedback on your use of tense in a story? Get novel help from our writing community or your own, experienced writing coach.

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  • Tags how to write tense , tense and narration , writing tenses

how to write essays in present tense

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

28 replies on “Writing tenses: 5 tips for past, present, future”

A fine explanation of tenses. A subject often ignored, having been overlooked except by students of language. In short, changes in tense are great aids to tension.

Thanks, Bob! It’s true that it’s not discussed as commonly as certain other topics such as characterization.

Reading such articles clear all the confusion. Thanks!

I have question though, I am writing in past tense, all the events are happening in past tense. But, say, my protagonist is in a situation where she has to decide something and she is anticipating something, in short, it’s future for her, how do we go about that.

She was still sitting on the same bench, as she didn’t want to leave the light. She was sure that ………………………………………………………………….

What I want to write here is, she knew that she will not find any cab at this hour. a. She was sure that she will not find any cab at this hour. b. She was sure that she was not going to any cab at this hour. c. She was sure that she couldn’t get a cab at this hour.

In my current scene, I am trying to show the thought process of the protagonist and I have encountered 2 or 3 places where I have come across this situation. Am I doing something wrong? Should I not come across such situation at all if I am writing in past tense?

I understand reading helps, but at this moment, my mind is blank and I am not able to recollect anything that I (must) have read.

Please suggest.

Hi Jayendra,

Thanks for your question and the feedback. Number a. would be incorrect because ‘will’ is in the simple future tense (it would be correct in ‘She is sure she will not find any cab at this hour’). B would be correct with a few small tweaks: ‘She was sure she wasn’t going to find any cab at such a late hour’ (or ‘…any cab so late at night.’) Incidentally, ‘this’ implies present, continuous time so it is a little jarring in past tense (hence the alternatives above). c. Similarly, this option would be better as ‘She was sure she wouldn’t find a cab at such a late hour.’ ‘Would not’ is the right past tense form here, in present tense it would be ‘will not’. It implies future action in relation to the present time of the narration.

I hope that helps!

Hey Bridget, thanks for your reply. It feels silly now. If I was able to come up with “could”, why couldn’t I think of “would”! 🙂

Thank you for this article. Tense has been driving me insane as it feels like there are hundreds of exceptions when it comes to usage of “simple present verbs” in past tense narratives. It makes me want to disregard the entire subject and rely on an editor to catch any mistakes that I don’t naturally leave out.

For example. When you said, “Past perfect: Sarah had run to the store.” “Run” is a present (simple) tense verb, which would make you think that it can’t be used at all in a past tense narrative, but it clearly can if you phrase it correctly. This holds true with literally dozens of other verbs, adverbs, and other “tense” related words. I’m finding my work being hampered by this as I literally stumble over myself thinking I buggered up a word in my narrative, only to later find out it was a perfectly acceptable usage. I’m really at the breaking point over this, and I’m close to just disregarding it all together and relying on pure instinct and proofreading, then review by an editor at a later date. Then of course, there’s the whole deal with acceptable tense shifting…

Am I incorrect for thinking this way? Will this kind of mindset bar me from any chance of ever getting published or even being given an offer by an agent? Is there room in this world for easily confusable writers? I don’t know, and I can’t imagine how confusing this must be for foreign speakers, either. As I’ve been speaking english all my life and writing as a hobby for nearly a decade.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I actually do have an actual question. How do you use simple present tense usages of “being” when writing in second person past tense? Because the phrase, “You are…(whatever character’s name) comes up quite a bit. However, there’s no way to get around the fact that you have to use “are,” in the past tense continuous, and I can’t find any info on if that is correct or not.

I have a question. Would it be incorrect if my story is in first person point of view and narrated in the past tense, but the internal monologue of my narrator is in the present tense?

Ex. “Don’t you ever go anywhere else, Red?” My name isn’t Red. I can’t remember where that nickname came from. “I go to school.” I said. I could feel him rolling his eyes at me. I think he’s done that before. “Come with me today.” I looked at him then, a little puzzled. It was a bad idea and yet I said: “Okay.”

It sounds right in my head but I feel like the tenses are too all over the place to be correct. The narrator has memory problems so I want what he’s thinking to be read but I’m just not sure if this is correct. I’m more comfortable with past tense writing but should I switch to present tense?

I have the same question!

Hi Hannah, this comment slipped by, my sincere apologies for that.

Regarding your question, the tense switching does jolt the reader out of the story. If you’re more comfortable with past tense, I’d suggest putting the internal monologue in past, too. For example:

“I go to school,” I said. I could feel him rolling his eyes at me. He’d done that before.’ Similarly, for ‘I can’t remember where that nickname came form’, you could simplify it to make past tense less clunky as: ‘Where did that nickname come from?’

I hope your story is much further along now!

I’m a translator struggling with getting the past perfect correct in the story I’m working on. I find your article very helpful. Thank you 🙂

I have one question:

That morning, she had run her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she had come upon a disturbing scene. Apart from the glass and metal sprayed across the road like some outgoing tide’s deposit, there were what looked like two stretchers, mostly eclipsed from view by a swarm of emergency workers.

The above example sentences describe an event that had happened in the past from the narrator’s perspective, and that’s why the past perfect is used. Okay, no problem. But why isn’t everything in the past perfect? Why is it okay to leave some parts in simple past?

“As she turned the corner” instead of “As she had turned the corner” “there were what looked like two stretchers” instead of “there had been what looked two stretchers”

This is the exact issue I’m having in my story. When I put every single verb in the past perfect, the sentences sound very heavy, especially when the section describing the past event is long. But I’m not sure which parts are okay to leave in simple past.

Thank you for the feedback and for your question. You struck the exact reason there – stylistically, to put every single verb in past perfect does read clunkier and isn’t necessary. As long as there is a past-perfect verb establishing the time-frame of events, the rest of the events that are still contextually happening in the earlier time period don’t necessarily need past perfect. For example:

‘It happened last week. I had stopped by the vet shop to get my dog’s flea tablet [past perfect – prior action is established]. I was standing at the counter waiting to pay when I saw the new vet through the back entrance.’ If you wrote ‘I had been standing at the counter waiting to pay when I had seen the new vet…’ each instance of past perfect situates the action in a time period before the ‘main action’. Whereas the scene the narrator is describing is the main event unfolding after a prior action (stopping at the vet shop) situated before this encounter by past perfect tense.

There’s a useful article explaining past perfect further here: http://www.englishlessonsbrighton.co.uk/use-past-perfect-build-narratives/

Thank you so much for your quick response, Jordan! Your explanation and the link you shared are very helpful 😀

It’s a pleasure 🙂 Glad I could help! Good luck with your story.

Hi Jordan. I have a question regarding exceptions. Are there any? I’m busy writing a short and it currently starts out as “I live on the top floor of a two storey apartment complex.” I then proceed to recollect in past tense. The entire story takes place over the course of 1 night and ends with the protagonist still living there. I think – as I’m typing this out – I should probably change it to past tense right? The rest of story is written in past tense. I should treat the entire event as a recollection rather than get caught up in the fact that the protagonist is still currently living there. It just felt like I was setting it up as a “Once upon a time I lived on the top floor…” which is not really my intention. It’s part of series so “I” will still be living there. It just seemed like a nice opener using present tense. Any ideas on how I can achieve the same effect?

Thank you for sharing this interesting question. I can’t see any reason why you couldn’t begin and end on present. As long as the cuts between present and past are clear/signaled to your reader it should be fine. For example:

‘I live on the top floor of a two-storey apartment complex. You’ll know why I’ve shared this detail soon, as it connects to what I’m about to tell you about a strange event that happened two weeks ago.

I was….’

If you bookend a section in present tense this way, with a clear transition between the tenses using narration, it should be fine. The main thing with tenses is not to hop between tenses within the same narrative time-frame (for example ‘I am running down a dark street. I heard footsteps behind me.’ Here, there’s nothing to signal the passage between present and past and it’s confusing.

I hope this helps!

Hey! I’m a self-taught proofreader, not a writer myself (haven’t a creative bone in my body, sadly), and I’m having a great deal of difficulty learning present tense. Up until now, all the stories I’ve proofread have been in past tense, so I’m trying to teach myself how to correct tense errors.

However, many of the websites I’ve come across aren’t tutorials, they’re essays about why not to use present tense in fiction! Well, that’s up to the author to decide! The issue I’m having is mostly with knowing when to allow usage of past tense to go and when to correct it.

For instance, in this sentence: “Thrown by the jump in numbers, most viewers click back in the video just to double-check that Danny had indeed jumped from #3 to #6, before shrugging and continuing to watch.” I’m thinking that “had” needs to be “has”, but I’m not 100% sure. I like to be mostly sure before suggesting a change. Thanks. 🙂

Hi Tracy! Here the past perfect tense (‘had’) is acceptable because it describes an action completed before the present narrative time-frame (e.g. ‘I’m walking to the store now which had been closed this morning’ would be correct if the narrator were walking in the afternoon). If you wrote ‘I’m walking to the store now which has been closed this morning’ this would imply that it is still morning in the time of narration, due to ‘has’ here being in the present perfect tense (describing a past action or condition (‘being closed’) stretching into the present time).

‘Has’ in your example would read a little strangely as it could imply that Danny ‘has’ (in the present, continuing moment) jumped from #3 to #6.

I would say, since the video has already been recorded, that ‘had’ makes sense because Danny’s error (jumping from #3 to #6) ‘had’ been made at the time of recording, and had been viewed prior to the viewer’s realization. So both moments are squarely in the past rather than stretching into the present.

Does that make sense? 🙂 Tense will get you!

It absolutely does, thank you! I’m going to have to go back and reread certain things now, but I definitely understand this. So things that happened prior to the time frame in the story can be past tense, even in a present tense story! Thank you again, so very much, I’m trying so hard to learn this, but I just find it difficult. xD Your explanation certainly simplified it for me, though! ^_^

This post also sums up the differences very well: https://www.dailywritingtips.com/has-vs-had/

So, in short, can I use different tenses in my work of a story writing? In direct speech inverted commas are needed.Isn’t it?

MIXING PAST AND PRESENT TENSES

The following paragraph has a mixture of past and present tense. I believe it to be grammatically wrong but, to my mind, it doesn’t jar when I read it back and it gives the reader a sense of immediacy. My question is: Is it an absolute no-no or is there a degree of artist license here?

Archie flicked on the chainsaw’s master switch and pumped the primer a few times. Resting the saw on the ground he gave the cord a good hard yank. It clacked through its gears but didn’t catch. The second pull bit and snapped back stinging his fingers as it recoiled. “Son of a….” he yelped. The third pull sprung the chainsaw into life with a metallic shrill sending out a cloud of blue smoke that wafted across the laundry. Archie let it idle in a high pitched grumble and then tested it with a few pumps of the throttle that sent the chain shinning around the blade. “Seems okay” he yelled over the noise before killing the master switch. “I guess the real test will be half way through a tree.

Thank you for sharing that, there’s a great descriptive density to it and a clear sense of scene.

I’m curious as to why you think it mixes tenses? To my eyes, it’s all in past tense. You do have a participle phrase or two (e.g. ‘Resting the saw on the ground’) that provide a present/unfolding action, but these are used correctly within past tense for the overall narration (you do use it correctly to show one action that is ongoing during another – the finite verb ‘he gave…’ after that participle phrase still keeps the tense within past as expected).

It would be mixed if you had finite verbs in different tenses for events occurring in the same time-frame, e.g. ‘He rests the saw on the ground and gave the cord a good hard yank.’ This would be jarring because there would appear to be two different time-frames for actions unfolding within the same scene, thanks to present verb ‘rests’ and past verb ‘gave’. I hope this helps!

Great article, many thanks!

Brief question – when writing in the past tense, can you still use present tense for general statements? For example:

I woke up as usual at 5:47 station time when air supply unit number five, that occupied the majority of the level below our quarters, sprang into action, producing a constant humming that would last for the next eight hours. It is never completely quiet on a space station, there are always sounds, vibrations and audible movements, and you learn to live with it. It never bothered me, it was the only life I knew.

Hi Stephan, it’s a pleasure. I’m glad you found it helpful.

Thank you for sharing your question. That does scan fine. In the first instance, there is a participle phrase which creates the sense of a presently unfolding action within the past time-frame (‘producing a constant humming…’). This is correct usage.

Then the flip to present informs the reader of a general, ongoing state of affairs which is where we would use present tense. It depends on the site in time from which the narrator is speaking. If they are no longer living in the quarters when narrating this, then perhaps ‘It was never completely quiet on the space station…’ would make more sense (past tense for recounting conditions no longer being experienced). But if they are still based at the station, then present tense narration for a general state of affairs in their environment fits, as presumably it still isn’t ever completely quiet when they’re narrating this.

I hope this helps! Thanks for the great question.

Thank you for this article. I found it helpful. Both of my main characters at one point recall their dreams. Since they are recalling them, I would write them in past tense correct?

Hi Chelsea, it’s a pleasure! Not necessarily. I find authors often use present tense for this (especially if the main narration is in past tense). It would look something like:

But then I remembered the dream I had…

I’m standing in a wide, open field. I hear someone calling from the other side …

Present tense does create a sense of the unfolding moment that suits the sense of reenacting an interesting event, so personally I would lean towards that. I hope this helps. Just remember whichever tense you’re using to have a narrative link that clarifies that the narration is now crossing over into the dream description (in my example above, it’s the words ‘But then I remembered the dream I had).

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Present Narrative Tense: Tell Your Story in the Present

Graph showing frequency of present/past tense vs. modal verbs across registers

English tenses are difficult to navigate, because both mood and meaning are acutely sensitive to verb forms. This article shows the basics of how to use the present narrative tense of your manuscript.

When writing a research article, my three guidelines on tenses are:

  • Use the present narrative tense. The simple present makes statements intended to be true regardless of time and without any stance. The present perfect relates a past situation/action to the present situation/result. As the narrative tense, the present accommodates the past tense and all modal verb usage seamlessly.
  • Use the past tense only when referring to a specific past that’s either: wrong/no longer relevant, or of actual historical interest (e.g., when writing a review article).
  • Use modal verbs only when the situation requires a specific stance. In academic prose, this usually means (cap)ability ( can ) or future time ( will ), rather than degree of (un)certainty, permission, necessity, or obligation ( may , might , could , should , must , etc.).

The frequency distribution of the present-tense (70 %), past-tense (20 %), and modal verbs (10 %) in the academic-prose register of the English corpus supports this approach (right-most bar in chart).

Confusion will set in as soon as you start switching between the present and the past for the wrong reason. Adding passive voice to the mix will make things even worse. When this happens, my advice is:

  • (re)write in the active voice,
  • change all tenses to the present, and
  • touch up with past or modal verbs where necessary.

Makeover of a Famous Article Excerpt

Note: following I use single ( double ) underline to highlight active ( passive ) verbs . I use blue , yellow , green , and grey to highlight present tense , past tense , modal , and non-finite verbs , respectively, where useful.

Consider the following example (Saiki, 1988):

①A thermostable DNA polymerase was used in an in vitro DNA amplification procedure, the polymerase chain reaction. The enzyme, isolated from Thermus aquaticus, ②greatly simplifies the procedure and, ③by enabling the amplification reaction to be performed at higher temperatures, ④significantly improves the specificity, yield, sensitivity, and length of products that can be amplified. ⑤Single-copy genomic sequences were amplified by a factor of more than 10 million with very high specificity, and ⑥DNA segments up to 2000 base pairs were readily amplified . In addition, ⑦the method was used to amplify and detect a target DNA molecule present only once in a sample of 105 cells.

The abstract begins with idea ① using the past tense, suggesting the narrative tense of the abstract. This forces the reader to refocus to the present in ②, and then back to the past in ⑤.

Idea ③ uses the nonfinite verb “enabling,” reducing the significance of the enzyme’s role in the experiment.

These problems are all related to the use of the passive voice, which was intended to avoid personal pronouns. Note that all passive-voice sentences are in the past, while the active-voice sentences are in the present. Why the authors chose to switch tenses is unclear at this point.

Rewriting Using the Active Voice

①We (have) used a thermostable polymerase enzyme to improve the known polymerase chain reaction in vitro DNA amplification. ③The new enzyme enables higher temperature amplification, which ② simplifies the overall procedure and ④ enhances the specificity, yield, sensitivity and length of the target product. ⑤We (have) achieved single-copy genomic sequence amplification of ⑥up to 2000 base pairs by a factor of more than 10 million with very high specificity. ⑦We (have) demonstrated this by detecting the presence of a single target DNA molecule in a sample of 105 cells.

This rewrite reveals the authors used the past tense to relate their past actions to the current results (as in “we have achieved”). The “(have)s” show that the past tenses can be written in the present perfect instead, to convey the same time information in the present narrative tense. The (have)s also demonstrate how the present perfect is easily confused with the simple past. The verb in ③ is changed to the simple present and rewritten as the first verb of the sentence to highlight the role of the enzyme as the key technical advance of this work.

Touch Up with Present Narrative Tense

The time information conveyed above by the simple past/present perfect is redundant. Here I switch all verbs to the simple present. Note that I choose to highlight the new method’s capability using the modal “can amplify,” but the simple present “amplifies” also works. This last point is a matter of preference.

①We use a thermostable polymerase enzyme to improve the known polymerase chain reaction in vitro DNA amplification. ③The new enzyme enables higher temperature amplification, which ② simplifies the overall procedure and ④ enhances the specificity, yield, sensitivity and length of the target product. ⑤Our new method can amplify single-copy genomic sequences of ⑥up to 2000 base pairs by a factor of more than 10 million with very high specificity. ⑦We demonstrate this by detecting the presence of a single target DNA molecule in a sample of 105 cells.

Takeaways from the Rewrites

Being consistent is key. Switching for no reason between past and present (original version), or even between present perfect and simple present (first rewrite) is distracting—like a camera zooming in and out of the subject while you’re trying to see what the subject is. Consistent use of the simple present (final touch up) lets the reader take in the whole picture. 

The past narrative tense has a stance. Let’s try switching the narrative tense of our final touch up from the present to the past:

①We used a thermostable polymerase enzyme to improve the known polymerase chain reaction in vitro DNA amplification. ③The new enzyme enabled higher temperature amplification, which ② simplified the overall procedure and ④ enhanced the specificity, yield, sensitivity and length of the target product. ⑤Our new method could amplify single-copy genomic sequences of ⑥up to 2000 base pairs by a factor of more than 10 million with very high specificity. ⑦We demonstrated this by detecting the presence of a single target DNA molecule in a sample of 105 cells.

The new tense states the exact same truths as the final touch up, but exclusively in some past. This stance makes the abstract sound more like a Conclusions section. Even I didn’t expect this effect before writing it out.

Passive voice makes everything more difficult including verb-tense usage. Just write in the active voice. It will save you time and grief.

Conclusions

Academic prose requires strict tense usage. Write everything in the present then adjust the stance accordingly. Adding time information with the past is usually redundant.

Works Consulted

Biber D., Johansson S., Leech G., Conrad S. and Finegan E. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman, 1999, p. 456.

Saiki R.K., Gelfand D.H., Stoffel S., Scharf S.J., Higuchi R., Horn G.T., Mullis K.B. and Erlich H.A. Primer-directed enzymatic amplification of DNA with a thermostable DNA polymerase . Science 239 (1988), 487-91.

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Writing in the present tense: The good and the bad

Latest posts.

how to write essays in present tense

What are the pros and cons of writing a story or novel in present tense?

Before you start writing your novel or short story, you need to decide what tense to write it in.

There is no right or wrong but the choice you make will determine your approach.

Will your story recount events that have already taken place ( Lucy waited by the door ) or will it be set in an ongoing present ( Lucy waits by the door ) ? You can see just from those two brief examples that each option will offer different possibilities in terms of writing style and narrative approach.

You have two tense choices when it comes to writing fiction: past and present.

Using the past tense in fiction is time-honoured and for many, the default choice, but writing in the present tense is a stylistic choice that is increasingly used in modern fiction.

The present tense is used more in contemporary literary fiction, in short stories and in writing that plays or experiments with form – and also in a lot of middle grade and young adult books. Past tense is the default setting for most genre fiction.

As the simple past tense is traditionally used for storytelling, it presents fewer challenges to the reader, who doesn’t notice the tense that is being used and is immediately immersed in the world of the story. Past tense foregrounds the story, rather than the prose it’s written in. Present tense tends to be a deliberate stylistic choice used by a writer to create a conscious effect. You are signalling the reader’s attention to when your story takes place. This tense choice can be particularly effective when you want a reader to understand the world of your story as it unfolds through the eyes of a first-person narrator.

Benefits of writing in present tense

✓ it’s cinematic.

The present-tense is ideal for writing an impressionistic narrative that is playing out in an immediate timescale. Screenplays are written in first person because they express ongoing narrative and a close perspective, and both of these can be used to great effect in fiction. If you’re writing a story and want it to feel as if it’s set in real time, the present tense is a good choice

✓ It’s immediate

You can make readers relate to what’s going on in your fictional world and be involved in it by showing what happens – events, feelings, ideas – in the moment they occur. When each impression or scene you write takes place in the absolute moment, it means that the reader is right in there, experiencing the events of your story as they unfold. This can create a sense of intimacy or dramatic impact.

✓ It can feel more authentic

Because present tense allows for closer narration, it can create the sense of a unique character perspective. A present tense narrative can convey emotions, thoughts and impressions in the moment. Many writers who use the present tense feel that it’s a natural tense to write to reflect the world we live in now, where the voice of the individual is prioritised and what and how we write is influenced by TV, film and online culture.

✓ It’s vivid

Writing in the present tense means the information you present hasn’t got the perspective of being reported later. It’s written in the moment, without an effect of being filtered or processed or reported (though we know it has, because you’re a writer and it hasn’t happened by accident). What the reader has to focus on is the image you create, as it occurs, which makes for dynamic impressions.

✓ It’s good for delivering a deep first-person point of view

If you want to deliver the mindset of a first-person character, the immediacy of writing in the present tense means that your reader is right in there with your narrator, seeing what they see and experiencing the world of the story through their eyes. Rather than being an omniscient narrator, the writer shares the character’s focus. If you are writing an unreliable narrator using the present tense is an excellent way of delivering a narrative perspective at odds with the ‘true’ version of events in your story.

Drawbacks of writing in present tense

χ some readers don’t like it.

For every writer who feels the past tense is a bit ‘old school’ there is a reader who prefers a narrative that sticks with the convention of using the simple past tense. Present tense stories may feel natural for young readers but adult readers with a lifetime of reading work written in past tense may find present tense jarring – and it may be hard for them to get beyond the tense choice and into the world of your story. Literary fiction readers will be more open to experiments in form but for readers of genre fiction who want to be immediately immersed in the story, present tense may detract from their reading pleasure.

χ It can feel contrived

There is nothing more likely to put off readers than a writing voice that feels like a self-conscious pose. If writing in the present tense doesn’t feel like a natural fit for your story, it will read awkwardly and draw your reader’s attention to your attempt at technique rather than the story you’re writing. If you’re unsure about whether to use first person, try writing two versions of a short story, or a few pages of a longer work – one in present tense and one in past tense – to see which approach suits your story best and feels most comfortable for you as a writer.

χ It makes it harder to use time shifts

Writing in the past tense makes it possible for you to set your story at any point in time you choose, and move around between time periods. Writing in the present tense limits you to the present: being committed to the present tense also means being locked into it, and having less freedom than a past-tense writer to manipulate time to your story’s advantage. A past-tense writer can move around freely in time (and use all the available tenses to do so); a present-tense writer is restricted. Again, it depends what suits your story.

χ  It can make the focus too detailed

Although the present tense is very good for conveying a first-person narrator or a close third-person narrator, it also means that the writer wanting to appear naturalistic may overwhelm the reader with details of what that narrator sees, thinks, feels and experiences. It may be tempting for your narrator to describe everything they see, but do readers need to know what they thought about what they had for breakfast? Too much focus on the ongoing internal life of the narrator can detract from the story that is being told. If you use present tense, make sure all the information your character conveys is relevant. The character may be the story, but present-tense narrative still needs to be a story.

χ It’s harder to write

The writer who choses present tense for their story limits their narrative options in terms of available tenses – writers using the past tense have up to 12 tenses they can use; present-tense writers have four. It’s more difficult to maintain a present-tense voice without flipping between tenses. It limits you if you want to write stories with complex time-schemes, or create layered characters other than a first-person/close third person lead. If you want to create and build suspense, present tense will only allow you to convey the kind of tension that arises from not knowing what is going to happen next.

The choice of whether or not to use present tense for your story depends what you want to write – it doesn’t suit everything. It’s a good choice if you want to write a story that feels immediate, or one with a close single focus on the narrator’s viewpoint. It’s less useful if you want to create a story that moves around in time. It draws attention to itself, so if you do use it, you have to use it well or readers will notice the flaws rather than your story. Read some present tense novels to get a feel for how it works and how you might apply it in your own writing. Try The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Rabbit, Run by John Updike, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

So now you're all fired up, what better time to start writing your present tense story than... right now! Get some ideas for how to start your story here . It's particularly suited to crime and thriller short stories ... Enter now!

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how to write essays in present tense

How Hurray for the Riff Raff Learned the Power of the Present

Alynda Segarra used to romanticize the past. But their music evolved, and now they’re certain: “This is absolutely the right time for me to be alive, and writing songs.”

Credit... Luisa Opalesky for The New York Times

Supported by

Lindsay Zoladz

By Lindsay Zoladz

  • Feb. 13, 2024

Almost a year after the sudden death of Alynda Segarra’s father, the sight of a Bronx-bound subway entrance made the musician cry.

“I walked by the 1 train yesterday, and the color of the red and the ‘1’ and the ‘Van Cortlandt Park’ and the ‘Uptown’ — I just burst into tears,” Segarra, who uses they/them pronouns, said. “I was just like, this is so crazy that I don’t really have a reason to go up there.”

Segarra, who is 36 and makes folk music with a punky defiance as Hurray for the Riff Raff , wore a distressed white tee under a fitted leather vest, and silver jewelry that matched their painted nails. Sipping a coffee on a zebra-print couch in a quiet nook of Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea, they compared the storied hotel’s décor to the sets of the Yorgos Lanthimos movie “Poor Things.” Staying at the Chelsea was an uncharacteristic extravagance, but since their father’s passing, they have been allowing for treats like these, in his honor.

“My dad loved enjoying,” Segarra said. “He just didn’t deny himself pleasure. So now I’m really starting to be like, ‘Why not?’”

Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was raised in the Bronx and left home at 17, first living in a Philadelphia squat and eventually relocating to New Orleans, where they busked in a motley hobo band called the Dead Man Street Orchestra. (“I couldn’t believe that it was real,” they recalled with lingering delight. “I just get to sing Tom Waits songs and people give me money?”) When Louisiana got too hot or Segarra just got too restless, they would ride the rails, getting to know America through blurred glimpses of its vast landscape.

A person in a brown leather jacket lays on their side, bracing their head with one hand and laughing while facing the camera.

Some of those youthful adventures are recounted, with an overlay of maturity and melancholy, on “The Past Is Still Alive,” Segarra’s arresting, artfully autobiographical ninth album, due Feb. 23. “I love that” so deep into their career, “they’re making their best work now,” said Brad Cook, who has produced the past two Hurray albums. “It’s just so cool to see somebody work that hard.”

Since self-releasing their first full-length in 2008, Segarra has toured tirelessly and earned the admiration of some of their favorite contemporary artists, like Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee. “If I were to be asked who I think is my peer who I respect most as a songwriter, I would say Alynda,” Crutchfield said in a phone interview. Speaking about Segarra’s 2017 folk epic “The Navigator,” she noted, “There’s a couple songs on that record that make every playlist I ever make.”

“I get a kind of Springsteen, us-against-the-world feeling” from much of the music, Conor Oberst, the Bright Eyes frontman, said in an interview about Hurray for the Riff Raff. “There’s this fighting spirit,” he added, “and world weariness to a lot of the songs, but the delivery is so effortlessly, nonchalantly cool.” (Oberst sings with Segarra on a track from the new album.)

“The Past Is Still Alive” began gestating in 2022, when Segarra was opening for Bright Eyes. The pandemic had made touring more financially precarious than ever for independent musicians, and Segarra was feeling that uncertainty.

“It was so stressful,” they said. The price of gas had doubled. Physical sales had long since given way to streaming, which pays most artists pennies. “Behind the scenes I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t have a career.’ Which felt really scary because I was like, I don’t know how to do anything else.”

But watching Oberst perform his sharp-witted folk-rock on tour inspired Segarra to do something they usually don’t do: write on the road. “It was like a writing retreat,” they said. “For me, it felt impossible not to write after listening to those lyrics every night.”

And eventually, those financial difficulties even became a creative spark. “I think it helped to feel like ‘Maybe my career is over,’” Segarra said and laughed. “Because it helped trick my brain to be like, ‘This is just for me and my friends,’ you know? There’s not a lot to hide behind. The writing feels similar to how I wrote when I was 18, and the point was just to be as vulnerable as possible.”

IN A 2008 New Yorker column about New Orleans street music, Segarra is mentioned playing banjo and washboard with a jazz ensemble called the Loose Marbles, who make music “that sound as if they were first performed in a hobo jungle during the Hoover administration.” In New Orleans Segarra became inspired by Delta blues, Appalachian folk and other formative American musical movements, leading them to romanticize the past: “I used to be like, Damn, I wish I was born in the ’60s.”

“Small Town Heroes,” the first Hurray for the Riff Raff album to gain national recognition, came out in 2014, but its timeless, folksy sound made it seem as if it could have arrived just about any year in the 20th century. It gained traction in the nebulously defined but still somehow circumscribed world of Americana music, a label that Segarra felt stifled the more radical aspects of their vision.

“Americana as a genre has grown a lot since then,” they said, “but at that time I actually felt unsafe being myself and being explicit in my ideas and beliefs.” They felt fetishized for being both Puerto Rican and queer, pressured to live up to the sanitized image of “a good ol’ gal who lives down in New Orleans.”

“I was editing myself — even the way I dressed and presented myself onstage,” they added. “I knew this was a big opportunity and I didn’t want to lose it. I didn’t want to become homeless again. I was really working from a lot of fear.”

Segarra’s 2022 album, “Life on Earth,” was, thematically and sonically, a reclaiming of the present. “I really felt like they came out of their shell in such a powerful way during the making of that record,” Cook said. It contains elements and instruments not traditionally associated with Americana — synthesizers, near rapping — and also grapples openly with the present heartbreak of climate change. “Oh, I might not meet you there,” Segarra sings on the elegiac title track. “Spirit blinded by despair.”

“The Past Is Still Alive” continues this acceptance of the present. “I feel like I’m finally able to blend all these things,” Segarra said. “I’m able to play an acoustic guitar and sing a folk song, but also speak in my own language and feel very comfortable being myself.”

The album’s finale is the staggering epic “Ogallala,” which culminates in Segarra singing, “I used to think I was born in the wrong generation, but now I know I made it right on time/To watch the world burn, with a tear in my eye.”

“With the state of the world being in such chaos, I really do feel different,” they said. “This is absolutely the right time for me to be alive, and writing songs. There’s no doubt in my mind anymore.”

ONE OF THE most striking songs on the new album is “Hourglass,” a dirgelike meditation on memory and class disparities that finds Segarra making a very raw admission: “I always feel like a dirty kid/I used to eat out of the garbage.”

“That line was like, ‘Oh, I have no skin,’” they said. It was partially about Segarra feeling self-conscious about being a high-school dropout among tour mates who had gone to prestigious music colleges. When they brought Cook a demo of that song, Segarra was insecure about the bluntness of the language. “I kind of thought it was just a voice memo,” Segarra recalled. Cook assured them that it was indeed a song, and a great one.

“I sort of love that Alynda doesn’t know that ‘Hourglass’ is a song,” Cook said. “I love that Alynda doesn’t know how powerful and vulnerable and confident what they’re putting out there is. I don’t even think they realize how good they are.”

Segarra’s most conceptually ambitious album to date is “The Navigator,” a kind of character-driven folk-rock opera — in the vein of Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown” — about Puerto Rican culture and the American immigrant experience. (Working with the actor and director C. Julian Jimenéz, they presented parts of a stage adaptation in progress last year at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.) The most wrenching song on the album was “Pa’lante,” a piano ballad that somehow blended punk’s political fury with Sondheimian songcraft. (Cook called it “one of the greatest songs I’d ever heard.”) “Lately, I don’t understand what I am,” Segarra sings. “Treated as a fool, not quite a woman or a man.”

Since coming out as nonbinary before “Life on Earth” was released, Segarra has used music as a space to experiment more freely with gender. There’s a gleeful fluidity to the way that manifests on “The Past Is Still Alive.” They sing about the pressure to “be a good daughter,” but also assert, on “Snake Plant,” “I was born with a baby boy’s soul.”

On the album’s cocksure cover art, Segarra consciously channeled James Dean and River Phoenix. “I wanted to embody one of these sad, pretty-boy-in-workwear American archetypes,” they said with a laugh. Queer elders who showed them how to transcend the gender binary make cameos throughout “The Past.” In “Colossus of Roads,” Segarra name-checks the poet Eileen Myles, whose example taught them that “there’s also this option of existence, and creation of who you are.” (Myles happened to be in the audience of a small Hurray for the Riff Raff show in Marfa, Texas, and approached Segarra afterward to ask, “Did I hear my name, or am I just full of myself?”)

Re-examining their relationship with their father, Jose Enrico Segarra (who often went by Quico), has also helped Segarra understand the expansive nature of their gender identity. “When I was with him, I was his daughter, and I said that as a very honorable thing,” they said. But also “in his passing, there were some ways that I really felt like his son, in the honor of carrying his legacy musically.”

Quico was a pianist who loved Latin jazz; Segarra recalls him always scatting, whistling and singing. When Segarra was young, the two would sing together at the piano: “‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Que Sera, Sera,’ ‘You Light Up My Life’ — those were our hits.” Later, when Segarra was a teenager, the pair would get into arguments because Quico was “hilarious in a way that would make me really mad, because I was so goth and brooding.”

Segarra’s father was also a Marine veteran who developed PTSD after returning from the Vietnam War. His struggle, and his decision to seek treatment, continues to inspire Segarra. “I got this really good example from him of somebody who did decide that his life was worth saving. The trauma he experienced was so intense, and to witness him really take his peace seriously. …” They trailed off. “He started making jewelry and he would just bead all day. He started buying Puerto Rican art and filling his apartment with beautiful things.”

On a Wednesday evening in late January, about a hundred people gathered in the St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery to listen to an early playback of “The Past Is Still Alive.” At any given moment during the album’s 11 emotionally wrenching tracks, light sniffles could be heard. Loss, Segarra said in a Q. and A. afterward, had made them feel “like I needed to write all these people down. We have all these monuments to all these [expletives] around the country. This is my version of a monument.”

Segarra then picked up a guitar and played a stunning solo version of “Alibi,” the tough-loving leadoff track. “You don’t have to die if you don’t want to die, you could take it all back in the nick of time,” they sang in a rich alto that echoed from the rafters. They initially wrote “Alibi” to a friend struggling with addiction, but said it was one of many songs on the album whose meaning has transfigured in the wake of their father’s death.

“Singing that song after he passed, it just became about something else,” Segarra said. “Like, your spirit doesn’t have to die. You don’t have to leave me. You can stay with me if you want, you know?”

Find the Right Soundtrack for You

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COMMENTS

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    The Basic Rule: You should use the past tense when discussing historical events, and you should use the literary present when discussing fictional events. When commenting on what a writer says, use the present tense. Example: Dunn begins his work with a view into the lives and motivations of the very first settlers.

  4. The Writing Center

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  11. PDF Strategies for Essay Writing

    understand why it's worth writing that essay. A strong thesis will be arguable rather than descriptive, and it will be the right scope for the essay you are writing. If your thesis is descriptive, then you will not need to convince your readers of anything—you will be naming or summarizing something your readers can already see for themselves.

  12. Writing in Present Tense: The Secret to This Popular Writing Style

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  14. How to use the present tense in academic writing?

    1 Answer to this question. Answer: This question is rather unclear, but I am assuming that you wish to know about correct verb tense usage in academic writing. Tense usage varies across different sections of a manuscript. For instance, the Introduction section uses a mix of the present tense and the past tense.

  15. Past, Present, and Future Tense in Essays: How to Switch

    You can use present, past, and future tense in your essay. But there is a catch. Before you write your essay, you must know which tense fits it. You can either get guidance from your tutor or do your research. Above all, ensure the tense you use is consistent and clear. Most essay writers use the present tense. It is simple and direct to the point.

  16. Past vs. Present Tense: Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel

    With a blank face, he drove away. Present tense, on the other hand, sets the narration directly into the moment of the events: From the safety of his pickup truck, John watches as his beloved house burns to the ground. With a blank face, he drives away. This is a short example, but what do you think? How are they different?

  17. Present tense

    Level: intermediate There are two tenses in English: past and present. The present tense is used to talk about the present and to talk about the future. There are four present tense forms: We can use all these forms: to talk about the present: London is the capital of Britain. He works at McDonald's. He is working at McDonald's.

  18. How to Use Present Tense in an Academic Essay

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  19. How to Write a Novel in the Present Tense: Pros and Cons of Present

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  20. Writing Tenses: 5 Tips for Past, Present, Future

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  21. Present Narrative Tense: Tell Your Story in the Present

    1 Comment / Tenses / By Patrick Han / Abstract, Active Voice, Famous Article Makeover, Passive Voice English tenses are difficult to navigate, because both mood and meaning are acutely sensitive to verb forms. This article shows the basics of how to use the present narrative tense of your manuscript.

  22. Writing in the present tense: The good and the bad

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  23. A Guide to Writing Tenses for Creative Writers

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  24. How to Write in First-Person Present-Tense

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  25. r/writing on Reddit: What are some guidelines for using present tense

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  28. How Hurray for the Riff Raff Learned the Power of the Present

    When Louisiana got too hot or Segarra just got too restless, they would ride the rails, getting to know America through blurred glimpses of its vast landscape. Hurray for the Riff Raff's "The ...