My kid has a comprehension exercise from school. The story was written in past tense. The questions were asked in present tense.

e.g. Why does John feel happy? Why does the author use the word contentious in the last paragraph?

Are these questions to a year 6, aged 11, pupil appropriate? And what tense shall be used in answering the questions in this case? I was taught that I shall use the tense how the question asked. In this case I shall using present tense when answering present tense questions. However the facts that they were clearly happened in the past!

  • This year 6... what is their level of English? Are they a native speaker of English? Are you?
    – James K
    Commented Oct 19, 2022 at 19:25
  • @JamesK We are not native speakers of English but we are now in UK and this exercise is from a local school in England.
    – Calvin Lee
    Commented Oct 19, 2022 at 19:28
  • Why would they be inappropriate? They look like very normal comprehension type exercises for native speakers.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 19, 2022 at 19:35

2 Answers 2


The simple present is often used to refer to written content, even if it's a story written long ago in the simple past:

What does Chaucer mean in this quote?

It refers to the fact that the words still have meaning now, even if they were written hundreds of years ago.

When we ask the same question in the simple past, it refers more to the intent of the author.

So in your context, the question means, "What is the function of the word 'contentious'" rather than "What was the author's motivation for using the word 'contentious'".

You can answer this question either in the present or past tense. When unsure though, you're right that it's always a good guess to answer in the same tense as the question.


There is no problem in using the present tense, that is unremarkable. The past tense would have been fine too. (a child would probably not even notice). You would probably answer in the present tense, but there is no specific rule here. The question is testing your comprehension.

"Contentious" is part of the extended vocabulary that native speakers should be acquiring at school, so it would be completely reasonable for English lessons for native speakers.

We often treat text as frozen in time, and so use the simple present to discuss the text.

Remember that in an English school, "English" is not a lesson in learning to speak English and use grammar. It is a lesson in rhetoric, comprehension, analysis of texts, poetry, journalism, etc. etc.

  • Right you gave me the insight of what's like learning English in native environment. I was taught in a non-english speaking country.
    – Calvin Lee
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 18:23

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .