What is the correct tense to use in an academic paper when speaking about correspondence? Say one of my source materials is a letter written by someone named William, in which he says he went to the store.

Would I say

William writes that he went to the store.


William wrote that he went to the store.

If William was an author and I was discussing a book he wrote, it would be the former. Is that true for correspondence as well?

  • I wondered about that. Should I repost there?
    – dwhsix
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 17:16
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    – Daniel
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 17:20
  • Thanks. I don't have the rep here to help with that...
    – dwhsix
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 17:24
  • @cornbreadninja - you can't vote to migrate (i.e. close) until you have 3000 reps, but don't worry, you'll be there soon!
    – Matt Эллен
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 17:57
  • 2
    Touché! I did flag it for migration :\ Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 18:00

1 Answer 1


I am not in academia, but I think if you would use the present tense for a book, then a letter — which presumably has to be published for you to have access to it — would fall under the same rule.

Otherwise you have something like, "John Adams writes in Defence of the Constitution that England is a monarchical republic, but in his letter of 1 March 1776 to his wife, Abigail, he wrote that he thought England was 'an instance of the indifferent led by the inbred into iniquity.'" The switch in tense might be jarring.

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