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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?

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Mar 9 '12 at 18:06

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

I wondered about that. Should I repost there? – dwhsix Mar 9 '12 at 17:16
I voted to migrate it. Just wait. If 4 others vote to close (at least 2 more votes to migrate), it'll automatically be moved. – Daniel Mar 9 '12 at 17:20
Thanks. I don't have the rep here to help with that... – dwhsix Mar 9 '12 at 17:24
+1 and voted to migrate. – cornbread ninja Mar 9 '12 at 17:53
Touché! I did flag it for migration :\ – cornbread ninja Mar 9 '12 at 18:00
up vote 2 down vote accepted

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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