1. MiltonClemens
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    MiltonClemens Member

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    The use of tenses in a commentary essay

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by MiltonClemens, Sep 30, 2009.

    I am going through some intense English language course which expects me to write several commentary essays for proses and poetry. I did some like William Blake's London, William Blake's The Chimney Sweeper, Kate Chopin's Story of an Hour. I could criticize and make commentaries about them, but the thing is, the use of tenses made my head go haywire!

    An example would be this.
    Say there is a stanza from William Blake's "London" :
    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infant’s cry of fear,
    In every voice, in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.


    If I want to say that the author tried to tell readers about how the government chained people's thoughts through the use of dark imagery (manacles) and diction, should I say :

    -The author uses dark imagery to reflect government oppression

    or

    -The author used dark imagery to reflect government oppression

    I get really really confused as to which tense should I use, past or present. Help please??? Sorry to take up your time :(
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Always present tense when you're discussing texts.
     
  3. MiltonClemens
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    MiltonClemens Member

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    Sometimes it won't really sound good if present tense is used. Sometimes it would sound ridiculous, are you sure everything must be in present tense?
     
  4. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    When wouldn't it sound good?
     
  5. Mister Micawber
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    Mister Micawber Member

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    Oh, you might be discussing a piece and its revision by an author, for instance, and you might find it clearer to refer to what he did in the 1969 version versus what he does in the just-published revision.

    Sometimes it is a relief to shift tenses for a bit if you can.
     
  6. Sound of Silence
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    Sound of Silence Member

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    I think essays cover most tense. I know I switch according to what I'm writing (i.e. going over an accepeted scientic fact/statement (I use present tense), going over findings of past reserach (past tense) and present progressive, well, that's mainly used to cover reasearch that is still ongoing.)

    I take it the commentary covers any sociocultural associations, MC, so I guess it would be hard not to switch tense.

    If in any doubt, ask your tutor, hun.
     
  7. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    ditto that :)
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Present tense is very common, but I don't think it's required. The main thing is to be consistent. Choose one, and stick to it throughout the essay.

    If you are discussing a book by Samuel Clements, isn't a bit silly to say "He writes" when he is long and comfortably dead? I'm sure he'd agree wholeheartedly if he could.

    On the other hand, I have seen quite a few sites speak of "literary present", stating that as the preferred way to refer to literary content. In that convention, it's consistent to say that the author wrote (past tense) the book on such and such date, and in the same paragraph assert that the writer describes (present tense) the life of a child pressed to work long hours in the coal mines.

    Confusing? Absolutely. But it's a traditional convention still in widespread use.
     
  9. MiltonClemens
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    MiltonClemens Member

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    You mean to say that we can always use past tense in the beginning of the paragraph, then continue on with present tense for the rest of the paragraph? Would it go the same for thesis statement?
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No. The past tense was for the act of writing and producing the book, but the present tense was for describing the content of the book. Literary present only applies to the author's purpose with regards to the content. The book is treated as a living expression of the author's thought processes, and so it's content is expressed in present tense. However, the completion of the book, it's publication, and relevant aspects of the author's life are past events, so they are rendered in past tense.
     
  11. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Yeah maybe I should've been clearer. If you are discussing something that actually happened in the past (the author writing the book, some historical event), you obviously describe that in past tense. But anything to do with your argument, or the text, or the author's intentions, (in an essay on literature) you write in present tense. Here's an excerpt from one of my essays...my tutor made no comment about the use of tenses, so I assume they're right...
    The fact of there not being a set-piece battle between forces of good and evil in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader suggests a more complex moral development is taking place in the text. However, it is clear that the idea of conflict between forces of good and evil is still central to the moral ideology expressed in the book. Lewis himself intended the Chronicles as Christian parables, casting matters of faith "into an imaginary world, [stripped] . . . of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations" (Green & Hooper 252). As such, with Dawn Treader, it seems apparent that he is broadening the scope of his concerns to facilitate the consideration of more complex moral questions. This essay will consider the key events in this book and the ideologies that underpin them, and show that while the battle of good versus evil is omnipresent in the text, a more subtle understanding of the moral development of the child is at work alongside it.

    So yeah, as you can see, present tense works fine for discussing a text.
     
  12. MiltonClemens
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    MiltonClemens Member

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    Ooh okay I get it. My teacher taught me to use present tense for thesis statement. He gave me a formula, and I could start by saying "In (Literary Work), the author uses (1st literary device), (2nd literary device), and (3rd literary device) to (explain/emphasize/etc) about (some aspects [theme] )" It lead me to believe that the whole essay should actually be in present tense because present tense is being used in the formula to formulate a thesis. Should I go on with the formula or should I take on other measures to formulate a thesis?
     
  13. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Your thesis will always be in present tense. Basically if you are discussing the text in any way, you will be doing it in present tense. The only time you might change is to discuss things outside the text that happened in the past.
     

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