If you find a diary and something that's written on it:

"If you can understand this, you're smart."

Is he telling that in present or past?

So, when the reader that see this comment, is he or she going to say, "Is the writer trying to subtly say that if I can't understand this, I'm stupid?" or "Was the writer trying to subtly say that if I can't understand this, I'm stupid?"

  • 1
    What's the difference? The writer wrote it in the past, and the reader is reading it in the present. This is the same for everything ever written.
    – gotube
    Apr 9, 2022 at 9:52
  • @gotube That's exactly the case why I'm confused. Which is the correct one? Is or was? Or both are fine to use in this context?
    – ZZZ
    Apr 9, 2022 at 10:26
  • 1
    Either will normally work - even if it was something in the Old Testament e.g. In the Garden of Eden story "Is God telling us women are rightly subordinate to men?"
    – WS2
    Apr 9, 2022 at 11:55

2 Answers 2


The question seems to be asking about the 'literary present'. Conventionally, we would ask: "Is the writer trying to subtly say that if I can't understand this, I'm stupid?"

Literary works, paintings, films, and other artistic creations are assumed to exist in an eternal present. Therefore, when you write about writers or artists as they express themselves in their work, use the present tense.


  1. When commenting on what a writer says, use the present tense.

Example: Dunn begins his work with a view into the lives and motivations of the very first settlers.

Example: Through this anecdote, Richter illustrates common misconceptions about native religion and shows why missionary attempts were less than successful.

How (and Why) Do I Write in Literary Present Tense?

  • Thank you! This answer my question thoroughly.
    – ZZZ
    Apr 9, 2022 at 11:47

You're overthinking this. There is no complication. This is the present tense.

There is nothing about something being written that makes it true.

You are a crocodile.

Writing that doesn't make you into a crocodile. In exactly the same way, writing "If you can understand this, you are smart" doesn't actually make it true.

Now when I think about a person I might say "my mother likes gardening" - in fact all I know is that she used to like gardening. Since she isn't in the room with me now, I can't know for certain that she still likes gardening. But I'm willing to say "My mother likes gardening", because I believe it to be true now, in the present. On the other hand I would probably say "my great grandmother liked gardening" (because the old lady died many years ago)

Similarly when you think about the intentions of an author you might use the present tense (especially if you believe the author to be alive) or the past tense (especially if the author is dead).

Shakespeare gave his characters complex emotions.

J.K.Rowling likes to parody aspects of British culture.

In the diary example, you could use "Is the writer..." or "Was the writer"... both would be possible and correct, and have almost the same meaning.

So you're overthinking this....

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