The question is similar to this but the answers does not answer me. In my general fiction novel, which is told in first person singular past tense, I encounter moments where I am confused whether to use present tense as the events are still happening as the story is being told.

For an example:

Matt and Richard arrived just a few minutes later. Matt was the software architect and Richard the Creative Director who headed our team.

In this paragraph, Matt is still the software architect and Richard is still the Director as the story is being told. I am getting confused about usage of 'was', I tried to use ',' for Matt.

Using 'is' is disturbing the flow of tenses in the paragraph.

  • You can't just drop the verb and replace it with a comma, at least not at the first occurence. The other way around would work: "Matt was the software architect, and Richard the Creative Director"
    – Llewellyn
    Jun 27, 2019 at 17:11
  • 1
    Is this snippet part of a flashback or a character telling a story? Is the rest of the story told in present tense? Also might be a duplicate of writing.stackexchange.com/questions/14303/…
    – Llewellyn
    Jun 27, 2019 at 17:14
  • @Llewellyn Yes even I had written as 'Matt was...' but then the confusion as Matt still is...It's not a snippet part of flashback, its the character telling story in past tense. Yes the question is similar to link you provided but in that question OP is asking about an object, non-changing entity...I am asking about events...some thing that can change. That still does not answer the question. Jun 27, 2019 at 17:36
  • I am guessing that if they were no longer in those roles, you would have probably used "had been" instead of "was".
    – NofP
    Jun 28, 2019 at 0:05
  • @NofP OK...so you mean use of was is correct if I have to give reader an idea that they are still working there... Jun 28, 2019 at 6:35

3 Answers 3


Still happening... in the past

Past tense indicates something that was present, in the past. This also implies that it is not happening any longer, or that the situation has changed, or that we simply don't know what the present status is

John Doe was on the bus. John was a keen photographer.

This sentence indicates that at that time John was simultaneously "on the bus" and "a photographer".

John Doe was on the bus. John had been a keen photographer.

This sentence indicates that at that time John was "on the bus". However he was no longer a photographer, and he was probably doing something else.

What about the present tense?

There are indeed some instances in which you may wish to use a present tense, for instance when switching to a flashback, but you may need to clarify the transition by adding some time reference element, or a transition particle:

John Does was on the bus. That day is January 1st 1900. John is a keen photographer.


John Doe was on the bus. Thinking of it, it seems to me to relive the moment. The bus is halting at the intersection and the parade is about to pass. John is a keen photographer.

  • 2
    Thank you for the answer. It clarifies my confusion. Can I say that, as long as Matt was an engineer for time frame while the story is being narrated it does not matter what he did afterwards. So my past tense still remains valid. Jun 28, 2019 at 9:11

We normally tell stories in past tense. In general, we don't care if a statement might still be true today. We still give it in past tense because we are relating something that happened in the past. Most of the time, discussing whether the event is still true or is true again would be irrelevant to the story and distracting.

Like suppose I am telling the reader about events that happened ten years ago. I write, "Sally was visiting Chicago." The fact that I use past tense just means that she was visiting Chicago at that time. She may still be in Chicago, she may not. She may have left and gone back.

In many cases, it would be impossible to say whether a statement that was true at the time of the story is still true today. I have no way of knowing when the reader will read the book, or what the circumstances will be at that time. Someone may read this book tomorrow, and another may read it 100 years from now when Sally is long dead.

It's routine, for example, to write descriptions in past tense. "George entered the room. He was a tall, black man with wavy hair. He wore a red shirt and blue pants." If George is still alive, presumably he is still tall and still black. He may or may not still have wavy hair. He may have decided to get a different hair style, or he may have gone bald. And of course there's no assurance that he is wearing the same color clothes.

You know this. And so does the reader. If every time you described a character you said, "He was wearing a red shirt that day, but when I saw him today, as I write this story, he was wearing a green shirt, and of course I have no way of knowing what color shirt he'll be wearing at the time that you are reading this", well, that would just be tedious and pointless.

It could also give away information that you don't want to reveal yet. If you make a point of telling the reader what George looks like today, that tells the reader that he is still alive and perhaps other information about him. If later you try to create suspense about whether George will survive his adventure, well it would blow it if you told the reader that he is still alive at the time you wrote the story. And of course, if you tell us that every character is still alive and then pointedly don't mention this about George, that would be a clue to the observant reader that George is not still alive.

I can only think of 2 times when we shift into present tense:

  1. When discussing some eternal truth, or at least, some fact that we would presume will be true indefinitely. Like some fact of science. If I was telling a story in which, I don't know, the hero performs electrolysis on water to produce hydrogen gas, I might say, "And then he poured water into his electrolysis apparatus to produce hydrogen gas. Water is, of course, made up of hydrogen and oxygen." i.e. "is", not "was", because presumably it always was and always will be. Not quite an eternal truth but a long-lived one, I might break into present tense to say, "Italy is a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean Sea". Etc.

  2. If you are making a point that something has or has not changed since the time of the story. Like, "The explorers constructed a monument to mark the site of their discovery, and it still stands there to this day." Or, "In those days Ruritania was a monarchy. It did not become a republic until centuries later."

There may be other cases, but they're all relatively rare.

  • Thank you so much for such an elaborate answer. It helps a lot. Jun 29, 2019 at 7:18

If this is a personal account of something that happened with people who still exist and still have the same roles in the company, it would actually be more natural to use present tense for the description of their roles.


"It was crazy what happened at the meeting last week", Paul said with a shocked look on his face. "I arrived shortly after our CEO, Simone. Matt and Richard arrived just a few minutes later. Do you know them? Matt is the software architect and Richard is the Creative Director who heads our team. Anyway, we arrived, and then [...]"

So it matters whether this is a personal account, or a narration of a story. For the narration of a story, you want to keep the same tense, and the question whether Matt and Richard are still in those roles as they were back then is irrelevant to the story. However, if it's a personal account, and the person that is being addressed has a chance of getting to know these people later, then the present tense is the right choice.

For novels etc., this will probably only be important for dialogue. There could be exceptions, for example if the narrator is talking about something he/she believes to be true at all times:

They were all getting scared, but God was watching over them. God does not abandon his flock.

The black hole destroyed the ship. The universe does not care about the lives of its inhabitants.

At this point the narrator breaks out of a pure story narration and speaks directly to the reader. The examples would work equally well with past tense, but there's a slight shift in meaning. "God did not abandon his flock" is much more personal, more focused on the people in the story. It's not a general statement.

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