Usage and Grammar

Q. When writing about an author’s work, do you write in the past or present tense? Example: The author argues (argued) that it was the correct choice. Please help. Thanks.

A. Different kinds of writing have different conventions. In academic writing, it’s not wrong to use the past tense when quoting written works, but it’s conventional to use the “historical present,” even when the author is dead (Heraclitus says, “No one steps into the same river twice”). In a newspaper interview, however, the present implies that someone is in the habit of saying something, rather than that he or she said it one time, and it is more likely to be found with paraphrasing than with a direct quotation (Mr. Obama says that the health care system needs fixing). “Said” in the same context implies that a person said something on a particular occasion (in his speech last night Mr. Obama said that the health care system needs fixing). And “said” used with quotation marks indicates that the person spoke the actual words on a particular occasion (Mr. Obama said, “We spend one and a half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren’t any healthier for it”).