literary present (verbs)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

literary present
"You use the literary present because a work of literature is continually alive, re-created each time someone reads it" (Elements of Literature, 2002). This photo is from a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth at London's Globe Theatre in June 2016. (Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images)

Definition

In English grammar, the literary present involves the use of verbs in the present tense when discussing the language, characters, and events in a work of literature. 

The literary present is customarily used when writing about literary nonfiction as well as fiction—essays and memoirs as well as novels, plays, and poems. For example, when writing about Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal," we write, "Swift argues .

. ." or "Swift's narrator argues . . .," not "Swift argued . . .."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations:

  • "It is customary to use the present tense when writing about literature, even if the events discussed take place in the distant past. Example:
    When she sees that Romeo is dead, Juliet kills herself with his knife."
    (Janet E. Gardner, Reading and Writing About Literature: A Portable Guide, 3rd ed. Macmillan, 2012)
     
  • "In "Miss Brill," Katherine Mansfield introduces readers to an uncommunicative and apparently simple-minded woman who eavesdrops on strangers, who imagines herself to be an actress in an absurd musical, and whose dearest friend in life appears to be a shabby fur stole."
    (Miss Brill's Fragile Fantasy)
     
  • When to Use the Literary Present
    "Use the present tense when discussing a literary work, since the author of the work is communicating to the reader at the present time.
    In 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find,' the grandmother reaches out to touch her killer just before he pulls the trigger.
    Similarly, use the present tense when reporting how other writers have interpreted the work you are discussing.
    As Henry Louis Gates demonstrates in his analysis of . . ."
    (C. Glenn and L. Gray, The Writer's Harbrace Handbook. Cengage Learning, 2007)
     
  • A Communion of Strangers
    "When quoting great writers we tend to use the present tense, even if they died centuries ago: 'Milton reminds us . . .' 'As Shakespeare says . . .' The literary convention recalls the truth that must have inspired it. Writers we revere feel like colleagues and confidants, as if they were speaking to us directly. This communion of strangers, living and dead, derives from the rather mystical quality called 'voice.'"
    (Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)
     
  • An Experiential Description of Tense
    "By saying that the literary present is an appropriate tense for discussions of literary works because such works and their characters are alive and still speaking to each reader, grammarians have gone beyond the confines of literal chronology to what is at least a casual if not a rigorous attempt at a more experiential description of the tense. . . .

    "But not all references to authors and literary characters warrant an aura of timelessness . . .. At the very least, a reference to an author or character may deserve the past tense because it is a larger discussion of the past, or because it is associated with the chronology of a person's or character's life."
    (B. Haussamen, Revising the Rules: Traditional Grammar and Modern Linguistics. Kendall, 1993)