I am writing a paper and, for some reason, got stuck with the tense usage for a still-true fact.

For example:

Justice Breyer noted that the chemical symbol of water was H₂O.

Justice Breyer noted that the chemical symbol of water is H₂O.

Which one is preferable and grammatically correct?

  • They're both 100% correct and natural.
    – gotube
    Aug 5 at 14:44
  • 1
    There are several closely related questions and answers eg ell.stackexchange.com/questions/319945/… The answer usually is "both are possible". I'd by happy to suggest closing this as a duplicate of that or another of the "past or present" questions.
    – James K
    Aug 5 at 14:52

1 Answer 1


Either form is grammatically valid, and a fluent writer might choose either, it is a matter of style. The choice here should match the usage in the rest of the paper. If the paper as a whole uses the Historical Present, (which is a not uncommon choice) then so should this sentence. Thus if the paper uses forms such as:

  • In part A of the opinion Justice Breyer reasons that ...
  • In part B Justice Breyer answers the objections ...
  • In part C Justice Breyer deals with th problem of ...

the the part about water should perhaps be phrased as:

Justice Breyer notes that the chemical symbol for water is H₂O.

But if the rest of the paper uses the past tense to refer to the points made by the Justice, then the past tense should be used in this sentence as well.