By Geraldine Woods

At the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (spoiler alert!) the title characters die. Yet every time you open the book or go to the theater, they live again. Because the events in the book or play are always happening, present tense is generally the best choice when you’re writing about literature.

Not always, of course. At times you want to explain that one event in the story occurred before another. In such a situation, past tense may be the only way to talk about the earlier event. Other types of art also rely on present tense. In Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, for example, her massive form looks — not looked — like a monument carved from a block of stone.

If you write about the act of creating art, past tense is best, as in “Picasso painted Gertrude Stein’s portrait.” (Painted is a past-tense verb.)

Practice questions

Write the correct form of the verbs (actually, the infinitives, the leaders of each verb family) that appear in parentheses at the end of the sentence. Remember, sentences about artworks usually are written in present tense, and sentences about the artistic process or the artist are often written in past tense.

  1. The character’s name __________________ William, and in every scene he __________________ a hat. (to be, to wear)
  2. Followers of Lola’s blog __________________ for years on William’s fear of parrots, which they __________________ “parrot-noia”; in fact, today someone __________________ about that topic. (to comment, to call, to write)

Answers to practice questions

  1. is, wears. For these simple statements about a literary work, use present tense.
  2. have commented, call, wrote. The first choice that confronts you in this sentence is the actions of Lola’s readers. Because their actions span past and present, present perfect tense is best for the first parenthesis. Moving on: The second parenthesis addresses the comments that exist on the blog. While blogs don’t generally rise to the level of literature, they are written works, so present tense applies in this situation. The last part of the sentence describes what someone did in the past, so you need a past-tense verb.