What is the proper verb tense in a timeline?

+8 votes

In laying out a timeline should one use past tense

     1835 - 1857 Anna lived with her family in Tofteryd.

or the present tense

     1857 - 1862 Anna lives in Tofteryd.

or does it matter as long as one is consistent.

WikiTree profile: Anna Petersson
in Policy and Style by Norm Lindquist G2G6 Mach 5 (55.5k points)

That's a good question.  I never really thought about it.  I don't know if WikiTree has a preference.  But I googled the subject and the correct tense is present, according to this article.


You can also use the terse version:

1835 - 1857: In Tofteryd, with family

1881-84: Maid at Wrangsjö säteri, Marbäck

Eva, I like your suggestion for a timeline!  I use past tense for biographies.

Hello, Norm!

It seems that the experts here at WikiTree and at Quora agree that either tense (past or present) is acceptable, but disagree on which is the preferred. MY personal preference is to use present tense for a timeline, as it makes the timeline "come alive!"

The real issue, as you surmised, is to be consistent throughout the timeline - use either all present tense or all past tense.

Biographies, for the most part, should be past tense; however, for living individuals, some parts of the bio may require present tense (for example, "Lindy Jones currently lives in a white house, though it is not the famous White House in Washington, D. C.").

1 Answer

+10 votes
Best answer
In academic and historical writing, I've only seen past tense. People get tetchy when you try to mix it up. The difference, compared with the quora answer, is probably that histories are different from timelines. For Wikitree biographies, past tense should probably be preferred.
by Brad Foley G2G6 Mach 4 (48.0k points)
selected by Sir William Arbuthnot of Kittybrewster
This has crossed my mind as well and I agree with the past tense though I likely need to check my own work and make a few corrections.  :)
I agree past tense should be the preferred tense to use. For the most part we are talking about things that already took place and even in our profiles for those still living I would want to save a lot of editing that would be needed after the subject of the profile has died, why make more work for someone else.
There is one exception to the rule of always using past tense:  When describing the names of a person, especially in a relationship comparison, I prefer to use the present tense such as, "The names of John Doe's parents ARE Samuel Doe and Jane Smith."  

If this information was presented in the past tense, "The names of John Doe's parents WERE Samuel Doe and Jane Smith," there is an implication that the parents' names may have changed from the stated names to some other name.  This is usually more problematic for women than men in societies where women's name changes each time she remarries.
This best answer is about biographies not timelines. The quora answer seems better.
I agree, Norm, that people should answer the question asked, not the question they want to answer. I was mainly trying to build on the Quora answer in the context of WikiTree style. But, yes, the Quora answer was the answer that best answered the question asked.
I neglected to add that the Quora article included that neither tense is wrong.  But the consensus (from those in the business) seemed to indicate that the present tense was best.

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