I had a grammar quiz at the university today.

One of the questions was:

"Great Expectations" ____ by Charles Dickens.

a) is written
b) has been written
c) was written

Undoubtedly, the c option isn't correct since the time (the publication date) isn't stated or implied.

I crossed the a option out because it is neither a general truth nor a law. It is not a well-known fact to use present simple here.

Finally, I have chosen b. I still have doubts if a is the only right option.

It is unclear to me. Could you clarify it?
Any help would be appreciated.

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    I'm upvoting this question. Although the logic you've applied is faulty, you've at least provided enough detailed information that we can follow your line of thinking and provide an intelligent answer. It's no wonder this question has already attracted several good answers, while similar questions furnished with much less background information sit downvoted and unanswered. – J.R. May 23 '18 at 16:53
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    I think the problem here may be that you are trying to follow some gramatical rules that either don't apply here, or which native English speakers don't actually use :-) – jamesqf May 23 '18 at 17:35
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    "Undoubtedly, the c option isn't correct since the time isn't stated or implied." What time? – Acccumulation May 24 '18 at 20:20
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    @Andrew I won't interrupt the excellent answers below that cover the correct answers but just to address your reasoning: the publication date doesn't need to be stated; a book's existence in published form means an act of writing has been completed. Any work of history or fiction can take the present tense because it is new to each reader & al. (the plot has become a "general truth", if you need to think of it that way) but that's usually with reference to the actions described within, not the work itself. 'Has been written' implies sth's incomplete, e.g. publication has not occurred. – lly May 28 '18 at 4:43
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    B is the letter's name, without 'the', unless you're using it as an attributive: the B answer, the B team, &c. – lly May 28 '18 at 4:45

Actually, depending on context, all three answers are potentially valid. So this is another of those "Guess which answer the teacher is thinking is correct" questions rather than a "Guess the answer that is correct" question. If you have not been told who Charles Dickens is and when he wrote "Great Expectations", then your knowledge of English literature is fairly important to getting it right.

Since the novel was written in 1860 and Dickens is dead, logic suggests that the teacher expects you to use the past tense (as is most common), to talk about a past event:

"Great Expectations" was written by Charles Dickens (in 1860).

Otherwise, if it is a new novel and Dickens is still alive, it's not uncommon for English speakers to use the present tense to talk about its creation, especially if the author is present. For example, imagine a radio show on which they discuss contemporary literature

Hello and welcome to our show Literature and You. Today we review a particularly interesting new work, "Great Expectations", which is written by renowned author Charles Dickens, and who is today's guest on our show. Welcome Mr. Dickens!

To complicate this, English speakers sometimes use the present tense to focus on the current existence of the novel itself, rather than the action of the writer. In this case "written by Charles Dickens" can be interpreted as a participle phrase:

"Great Expectations", the classic novel, is often included in grade school required reading lists. It is written by Charles Dickens.

While this is not common it should not be discounted, since this is how English speakers actually talk, not how they should talk.

Lastly, suppose this sentence is part of a kind of stream-of-consciousness historical narrative:

The year is 1859. Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" is causing a furor in the halls of Cambridge. "Great Expectations" has been written by Charles Dickens (but not yet published), etc.

Again, this is not common, but you should be aware that it's possible in the right context.

In any case, it's a poorly-written question -- but that's not unusual in many English classes, even when the teacher is a native speaker. Yes, (c) is the obvious answer, but a good test question should have one and only one possible answer.

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    Yet another possible valid use of present tense would be if Dickens were someone alive and well and "Great Expectations" was the name of his blog: "Great Expectations" is written by Charles Dickens (which is not unlike: The Goosebumps series is written by R.L. Stein). – J.R. May 23 '18 at 16:58
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    Past tense for completed books or book sets. It is possible to say that "the Harry Potter books are written by J K Rowling" if you consider it likely that she will write another. Otherwise, they "were" written by her. Death tends to prevent new works. – Nigel Touch May 23 '18 at 19:01
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    I disagree that knowledge of a timeline (or the status of its author) is required: any book that is complete was written by its author. – BradC May 23 '18 at 20:14
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    Similar to BradC's comment, I disagree that this is a test of English literature. If I asked the same question about The Porcupine Sleeps by William J. Clinton, it has to be assumed from the question that the book exists and therefore was written, even if (as in this case) the book does not actually exist. The only exception would be a work-in-progress, such as My Cabinet Was a Great Cabinet is being written by Justin Trudeau. – H O May 23 '18 at 20:19
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    @HO Sure, but that's far from the only possible context for the sentence. When a novel is newly released it is not uncommon to hear people use the present tense to talk about its creation, especially if that person is present. E.g. "Hello and welcome to our show Literature and You. Today we review a particularly interesting new work, 'Go the **** to Sleep', which is written and narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, and who is today's guest on our show. Welcome Mr. Jackson." – Andrew May 23 '18 at 21:57

The one answer you've discarded is the correct answer.

The book was written many years ago - in 1861, to be precise. Perhaps the question expects you to know this information but it's definitely a past event, so the correct answer is "c":

"Great Expectations" was written by Charles Dickens.

That's an event that happened in the past and is not continuing any more. The book is finished, the author is deceased.

I suppose someone could argue that "is written" would be correct but that's not going to be a common choice for most native speakers.

"Has been written" is the least correct option. The book is not still being written. It's completed and done, so it's inappropriate to use what seems to be a passive perfect form.

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    Actually, it doesn't matter how long ago the event was or the fact that the book is finished. Consider Britain has been invaded many times, for example. The problem is solely that Charles Dickens is dead! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 23 '18 at 16:09
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    That's a completely different instance, though... You're not going to write a single book again and again... Once the book is finished, you'll never say "has been written"... heck, I doubt you'd ever say it about a single book. If you're talking about a series... The Wheel of Time" books have been written by Robert Jordan over the last 23 years is great... but you have to have a time frame for it to really make sense. Without "over the last 23 years", it doesn't work for me. – Catija May 23 '18 at 16:12
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    “Has been written” to me implies that the entity “Great Expectations” is a constant and has been completed several times by (possibly) more than one person. – Fogmeister May 23 '18 at 18:15
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    @Andrew Once a book is completed, it was written. The only exception I can really think of is something like "The book has been written and is waiting for publication". But any book that's out there was written. All that said, if your teacher didn't tell you any information about the book, you might have cause to say "this question should be ignored in scoring because it assumes knowledge you didn't give us". – Catija May 23 '18 at 19:49
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    @learner Sounds like an ongoing process, like the old Oscar Wilde quote: "In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody." – BradC May 23 '18 at 20:33

Choice A - "is written" - implies that this is continuing or recurrent activity. "Examinations are written in room 408", e.g. - this happens periodically. Some people might use this in the example you gave but it would be more correct to say "XXX is a book by Charles Dickens".

Choice B - "has been written" - implies that this was continuing or recurrent, but no longer is. "Exams have been written in room 408" tells us that exams used to be written there, but no longer are. This flavour doesn't really fit your example, though, because a book is generally viewed as a cohesive whole. Another flavour of this, with a different meaning, is that exams have been written there at some point but aren't at this particular point in time, but this flavour doesn't really fit the example sentences you gave.

Choice C is the correct one, one that I as a native English speaker would use describing what you've given me. "Exams were written in room 408" tells me that exams were written there, but no longer are, and this is likely to be semi-permanent. In the case of the Dickens book, of course, the situation is fully permament.

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    I'd argue (in BrE, at least) that exams are mostly taken, not written (except by the person who created the exam in the first place). – Steve Melnikoff May 25 '18 at 13:52
  • @SteveMelnikoff Same in AmE. That one struck me as odd. – Brian McCutchon May 27 '18 at 7:02

The present perfect in English (and in some other languages) is strange for a number of reasons. One of these is very famous. It is called the lifetime effect. All this means is that we don't normally use the present perfect to talk about dead people, or things that don't exist any more:

  • *Einstein has discovered relativity (ungrammatical/odd)

For this reason, amongst others, answer (b) is incorrect. The most idiomatic answer is answer (c).

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    +1 for the lifetime effect term. – learner May 23 '18 at 17:31
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    But "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare. Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace, and lay them prone upon the earth, and cease.." etc. I mean there are exceptions. English is complex.. – CowperKettle May 23 '18 at 17:52
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    @CowperKettle Not really - the poetic conceit there is that Euclid is still alive (in the form of his work), and this tense is to indicate that. It isn't an exception, because it's intentionally making that use of the grammar. – Graham May 23 '18 at 19:32
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    @CowperKettle Euclid is considered a member of the group of (dead and alive) people (scientists, scholars, artists, etc.) who have been examining something since ever. Does that explain it correctly? – learner May 23 '18 at 20:03
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    I don't think this is the reason, since "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows _____ by J K Rowling" would have the same answer. In fact, I don't think the lifetime effect is even relevant because here the subject (Great Expectations) still exists. – Especially Lime May 24 '18 at 15:11

King Henry VIII married six times. He was divorced twice, and he had two wives beheaded.

We don't say "has married" "has been divorced" or "has beheaded two wives" because it is common/general knowledge that the English monarch is not alive today. We "know" he is dead. Knowing or stating the date or year of his death is irrelevant.

Answers a) “is written” and b) “has been written” are acceptable if we didn't know that Charles Dickens was dead, or if the British author was "alive" in a story (fiction/novel/narrative) written about him.

If there had been a fourth option, d) “is”, then both c) and d) would be correct.

Great Expectations was written by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations is by Charles Dickens


Examples of this type of answer:

  • The book is by the author [present]
  • The book was written by the author [past]
  • The author wrote the book [past]
  • The author's book [present, possessive]

For the test question, using past tense is the apparently correct answer. But as others have written above, more than one verb tense can be used by native speakers to describe authorship of a work such as a book.

  • Possessive form having nothing to do with whether the author is alive -- agreed. Fixed the incorrect past perfect. – user8356 May 25 '18 at 14:54

It depends on what aspect you are referring to.

"was written" : This would be focussing on the event of writing. You use the past tense as (of course) the writing happened in the past. Here, Mr Dickens is the most important thing.

"is written" : Here, you are focussing on the book, which is implied to be well-known. Having been written by Mr Dickens is an aspect of that, and the author has not changed; so the book is still written by him. Here, the book is the most important thing.

"has been written" : This implies that there are multiple versions which may be written by other people, and so is wrong in this case. However, if we were instead talking about "the annual report" then you could used "has been written" since there are presumably several of these and they may be subsequently revised.

So, in summary, a bad question to pose, as both (a) and (c) can be argued as correct, depending on how you want to emphasise the point.


Great Expectations, the original work of art, is the singular context in this sentence (given its very brief and simple and only mentions the work of art and who the author was). This brevity and lack of context cancels out any present tense logic, such as those that infer the author's still today in the creation process, or the author continues writing his novel in present times, etc.

The sentence is referring to a classic masterpiece and you the reader are to understand this, otherwise there's no information to actually analyze. If you had no idea who the guy was, this sentence can go either way or becomes very meaningless. It wouldn't matter who or when was writing what, because there's no way of knowing without the contexual clues of the author being very old and the setence variations having to do with present/past tenses, like those of 'Great Expectations' and some old dude that surely died long ago, right?

The simplicity also implies that the statement is in regards to something of great distinction, which helps alleviate arguments that the statement "could" be talking about some other rendition of the original, such as a play, movie, etc.

Great Expectations, a book written and published 150+ years ago and assumed completed by most humanity, was written by an author. There's no way around it, I don't care what type of English jazz argument you come up with.

Unless of course the author was able to transcend aging effects and live until after their work of art becomes heralded as a timeless classic, or at least something most everyone would be familiar with the title when given a short descriptive sentence and nothing else. Then the author could sell tv rights to HBO for a mini-series in which they planned to finish out their masterpiece via a tv-show. THEN you could say it 'is written by'. The second choice option 'has been written by' does nothing but crap on the original author, implying that it's a shared piece of work that's continually being crowdsourced and altered over time. "This famous masterpiece has been written by Jimmy, Sally, Nancy, Tommy from kindergarden, oh and that Charles Dick guy, too!"/s

tldr; it was wrtten, unless the author comes back from the dead and signs a TV series to extend the original work of art, thus declaring the original as incomplete. No living author would have such a popular piece of work that it could be common-knowledge enough to even pose the situation of this question and analysis.

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