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When speaking of something included in text, what rules make it acceptable to say "it says", rather than "it said" regardless of conditions such as age of text, or the existence of subsequent revisions of the text?

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    Because normally you're talking about what the text says/said in some kind of relationship to the present moment. Plus the general tendency is to use the simplest available tense that's not actually wrong, and most people would agree that present tense is "simpler" even though it has more variability in terms of 1st/2nd/3rd person male/female singular/plural conjugation. – FumbleFingers Nov 6 '14 at 17:56
  • Indeed. As an example, if I receive two letters from a person, and we are reviewing those letters, I can say "This one says you will be arriving on the 25th, and the other one says you are arriving on the 26th". I dont need to say "This one said" and "this one says" depending on order they were written in. Are there rules which would support the wording as proper? – Eric Nov 6 '14 at 18:18
  • I'd have no problem with mixing, say, "That letter said you would, now this one says you won't", but I couldn't accept that one with the past/present reversed. – FumbleFingers Nov 6 '14 at 18:45
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This use varies in different contexts.

In ordinary discourse we have traditionally written of past works as if they were 'speaking' to us immediately, in the present; and I think this accurately expresses how most people read novels and plays and poetry. The same use is generally followed in academic studies of literature and history when citing past critical works, which are felt to still have something to 'say' to us without regard to subsequent discoveries.

In other fields, however, past works are fixed firmly in the past: the APA style guide, for instance, calls for prior works to be referred to in the past tense, since even yesterday's study may already have been superseded.

  • I think whether the current (writer?) considers himself to be party to the referenced "past" speaker's discourse (and whether he agrees with the earlier assertion) are central. Even LitCrit might use past tense for an outmoded/discredited critical assertion. I wonder if I'd notice if I saw two references to an earlier source, switching from past to present when that same source was cited for some still-recognised critical insight. – FumbleFingers Nov 6 '14 at 18:57
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    @FumbleFingers It's been 35 years since I was active in LitCrit; but I know I quoted mostly people I disagreed with, and I did so in present tense because I was arguing with them, exhibiting the imbecilities and contradictions they were uttering right in front of you and me, Dear Reader! – StoneyB Nov 6 '14 at 19:25
  • Yes, to me the critical aspect is if both letters are being read at the present time. You can say "this one says" and "that one says", regardless of order they were written in. What rules support the opinion,though? – Eric Nov 6 '14 at 20:36
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    @Eric When you're writing, see how other people in the same discourse community do it, and follow their lead. – StoneyB Nov 6 '14 at 22:31
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Here's an observation. In my guidebook for Barcelona, it says that the Il Papiro restaurant opens at 11 am. If I close my guide book and put it back on the shelf and then I pick it up again next year, I am pretty confident that it will still say that the Il Papiro restaurant opens at 11 am.

In actual fact, my guidebook for Barcelona is thirty-odd years old. Twenty years ago in 1994, it still said that the Il Papiro restaurant opened at 11 am. The reason that we use the present simple for what is said in written texts is that it always says the same thing, it doesn't change. It's kind of frozen in time. We would tend to use the past tense, if this kind of text had been updated. So for example, in a new edition of a book, they are likely to say, in the last edition we said that .... But for things that are always the same we tend to use the present simple.

Notice as well that this usage of the word say is not really an action verb. It has a stative flavour. When we say that a book brother text says something, we don't mean that it is doing some action! We are describing a state or situation. If we say that a text said something, there is no particular point that we perceive the information as being said. What we are describing is that state or situation in the past.

Hope this helps!

  • +1 Bingo: stativity is key. Wish I'da thunk of that. – StoneyB Nov 7 '14 at 20:34
  • "The reason that we use the present simple for what is said in written texts is that it always says the same thing, it doesn't change. It's kind of frozen in time. We would tend to use the past tense, if this kind of text had been updated. So for example, in a new edition of a book, they are likely to say, in the last edition we said that ...' Thank you for that reasoning.That seems likely. However, the reader of the older text may still use "it says", even if aware that the information has been updated. "The old guide says it opens at !!:00 but the new guide says it opens at 9:00". – Eric Nov 7 '14 at 22:02
  • If comparing clock times, when daylight saving times change occurs we would say that one clock says, for example, 4:00, and yet another clock sitting beside it says 5:00. Even though we know that one of them has been updated and the other one hasn't been, we still use "says" - not "said". Therefore I think it usage of the present simple more relates to the present action of the reader. – Eric Nov 7 '14 at 22:22

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