I watched this ted talk "How to recognize a dystopia - Alex Gendler" and saw this sentence, "the classic "1984" was a broader critique of totalitarianism, media, and language"

But why not the classic "1984" is a broader critique of totalitarianism ...? Because this is still the case!


  • 2
    Presumably he is thinking of George Orwell's intentions at the time he wrote it. May 10, 2023 at 12:35
  • Having looked at the video, I see that he refers to the writing of other famous books in the past tense as well. May 10, 2023 at 12:45
  • There is no tense confusion. That's a misunderstanding of an author's intention...
    – Lambie
    May 10, 2023 at 13:45
  • @Lambie can you further explain your point ? May 10, 2023 at 14:09
  • I explained it in my answer. The condition of whether something is described as is (are) or was (were) can refer to the time the work was created (was/were) OR it can refer to its condition as a universal quality or conditions (is/was). Sorry, that's the best I can do.
    – Lambie
    May 10, 2023 at 14:10

3 Answers 3


Idea: "the classic "1984" was a broader critique of totalitarianism, media, and language".

Just because a book such as this one is described as "was a broader critique of X, Y and Z" does not mean it is not that in today's world. By using "was" the author is merely locating his comment about the book on what it was when it came out. If he were making a general comment about the work in an abiding manner, he could have used "is".

Things that were and continue to be something, can be described using a past tense or the present tense depending on what an author is saying.

  • Yes. The title is merely a rearrangement of the digits of the year he wrote it (1948), and not a prediction of how things might be in the mid 1980s, as some seem to think. May 10, 2023 at 13:33

In that part of the video, the speaker is talking about the history of novels on totalitarianism, not about the novels themselves. So, he talks about what the book was when it came out, not what its impact is today or how it's understood today.

It's still true that 1984 is a broader critique of totalitarianism, etc., but the speaker is talking about the past, so "was" is more appropriate.


When talking about a document (book, article, etc.), you can speak of it both in present tense ("it says this and that") or in past tense ("it said this and that). In present tense, your statement will be implicitly understood as "now that we can read it"; in past tense, it will be implicitly understood as "when it was published". Both are equally valid, and because the content has stayed the same, there's no real difference in meaning.


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