Usage and Grammar

Q. Chicago recommends using the present tense when discussing the actions of characters in literature. But I often face questions about verb tense when discussing the actions of authors themselves, particularly in academic writing. Is it correct to say, “Blomley (2004) argues that property claims can be used toward ends that are both oppressive and emancipatory,” or should I instead render the verb in the past tense? Would the answer change if Blomley had written his book in, say, 1867?

A. Regardless of how long ago the author wrote, the “historic present” is commonly used in just this type of context. If you want to emphasize the past, however—perhaps to contrast it with the present—the past tense works well. Absolute consistency needn’t be a goal in a long manuscript, but don’t mix tenses near each other. Please see CMOS 5.123.