Past Tense (PT)

When you are writing about the past, use the past tense consistently.

Use the past tense to write about the past. You should only use the present tense in a historical essay when you are writing about the present. Note that your historical interpretation itself is taking place in the present; so it may be appropriate to write that evidence “suggests” a particular conclusion.

Wrong: The coming of World War II finally ends the Great Depression.

Right: The coming of World War II finally ended the Great Depression.

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Wrong: Thomas Jefferson says that “all men are created equal,” and this principle helped inspire the American Revolution.

Right: Thomas Jefferson said that “all men are created equal,” and this principle helped inspire the American Revolution.

Comment: Although it is technically acceptable to write “Thomas Jefferson says,” because you are writing about a text that exists in the present, this use of the “historical present” does not work well in historical writing–it will lead to unnecessary and confusing tense switching.

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