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Within narration in past tense, should a statement of a universally true fact be in past tense or in present tense? For example, in the short text:

It was late afternoon in Zubrin. The air was perfect and the breeze was light. The sky glowed with the brilliance of Saturn's exotic face, a face that hung almost directly overhead and moved very little. This was due to the fact that, like Earth's moon, Titan's rotation is synchronous in its orbit. One side always faces the planet. It was a spectacular sight when the climate shield was high.

Is "is synchronous" correct, or should it be "was synchronous"? And then, "one side always faces" or "one side always faced" the planet.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE, billy! I've edited your question, so that it contains not only a sample text, but the question you wish to ask about it. You can edit the question further, if you feel it doesn't represent your intent. You might also find our tour, help center and How to Ask pages helpful. – Galastel Jan 6 at 0:34
  • Thank you Galastel! This is my first post, as I'm sure you can see. – billy p Jan 6 at 0:47
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General truths, such as "the earth is round" should be in present tense. Applying the past tense to such a statement would imply that the statement is not universally true, or might no longer be true.

Compare:

Winter is cold.

A general statement about the nature of winter,

to:

That winter was cold.

Implication being that other winters might not have been equally cold.

to:

It was winter, and thus - cold.

Which implies that winters are cold, but now might not be winter.

If you wrote "Earth was round", I would understand that either Earth might no longer exist, or it might no longer be round.

  • I think your interpretation that "It was winter" means that now is not winter is wrong. In a narration in past tense, the present is written in past tense. Here is an example from George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones: It was winter and I was half a boy, and stupid the way boys are. I went too far and my horse died... Quite apparently it was winter at the time of the events. – user34178 Jan 6 at 16:23
  • @user57423 at the time of the events - it was winter. In the present - the point in which a hypothetical narrator tells the story about this past wintry event - it might or might not be winter. – Galastel Jan 6 at 16:43
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Yes, if the narrator is in the present telling a story about the past.

The narrative is telling a story about something that has already happened. So it's in past tense.

But then the narrative pulls you, the reader, aside to tell you something about the setting. And you know in this case it's just for the reader, because someone who lives in the Saturn system wouldn't know enough about the Earth system to use it as the base reference.

Using present tense is correct because the moons still exist, even though the story is over.

If the narrator is less personable and just simply describing, then using past tense is correct.

Frankly, either one will work. It's just a matter of how you are framing the story.

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I think this is more of a stylistic choice. Personally I disagree with Galastel and would keep consistency of tense. The switch to present seems like the narrator is suddenly giving me a lecture rather than explaining a scene. If you think this passage

This was due to the fact that, like Earth's moon, Titan's rotation was synchronous in its orbit. One side always faced the planet.

sounds awkward, it's probably because it's too wordy and exposition-y rather than a tense issue. You could probably just cut it. This

It was late afternoon in Zubrin. The air was perfect and the breeze was light. The sky glowed with the brilliance of Saturn's exotic face, a face that hung almost directly overhead and moved very little. It was a spectacular sight when the climate shield was high.

sounds perfectly fine to me. Does the reader really need to know about Titan's synchronous orbit to appreciate the scene?

(Also, strictly speaking, no statement is universally true. There will come a time when Titan's orbit stops being synchronous. Your hypothetical readers then would find your present tense description of Titan rather jarring.)

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Elizabeth here. Your first contribution and my first too. Hope this helps.

You begin by describing a scene then in the middle a switch to explaining to the reader why and then back to describing. Tense shifts back and forth. The "is synchronous" is correct. Yes the rotation is synchronous. Yes, one side of the moon always faces the planet. The tense shift is understandable and easily fixed. The two sentences at issue don't belong in the paragraph.

Take the two sentences out of the paragraph and use them to start the next paragraph. Descriptive and then Expository writing. Tense would not be an issue.

Hope this helps.

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    Hi and welcome to Writing.SE. If you would like, go ahead and change your username to the name you give here, or any name you like. Then we'll remember you better. – Cyn Jan 6 at 4:41
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It is important to understand why the answers by @cyn and @eyeballfrog are both correct.

When you switch from past tense to present tense for universal truths, you explicitly talk to the reader and refer to their f. You can only do this in a narration where addressing the reader directly is part of your narration, e.g. when your text is a fictional report or letter or journal, or you have a framing narrative in which your narrator tells a tale to an audience.

If you write in an impersonal omnisient style or want the reader to be immersed in the experiences of the protagonist, you would do better to avoid present tense for universal truths.

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