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Says versus said

We’ve already taken some time to talk about tense (especially as it relates to the lede), but I wanted to spend an additional minute on the special case of the verb “to say.”

In general, the preferred tense for verbs of expression (say, claim, note, etc.) in broadcast newswriting is the straight present.

20-year-old Tim Spriggs says, “We need a gay-straight alliance at St. John’s for the same reason that there are organizations for other minorities.”

This works most of the time, because most often we’re describing a recent statement that reflects the speaker’s current views (as above), or the current state of affairs.

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes a quote or paraphrase is part of a narrative that you’ve already explicitly set in the past, using the past tense. In that case, it breaks the narrative thread for you to suddenly switch into the present tense for a quote or paraphrase.

In the actual OutQ News story from which the quote above was drawn, the two preceding sentences were this:

Some twenty students sat on the St. John’s University Great Lawn making rainbow gay rights posters. They told the New York Daily News they’ve been pushing for a campus GSA for years.

We’ve already set up an event from the preceding Friday, and any quotes or paraphrases emerge from within that narrative. Thus, we’re sort of stuck with putting everything (everything within the narrative, that is) in the past tense.

But further down in the same story, we escape the little narrative about the protest on the lawn to get a quote from a university spokesman. He spoke recently, and what he said reflects the school’s current view.

But a university spokesman says St. John’s has gone as far as it can to support gay students, considering its Catholic mission and values.

So in a nutshell: Use the present (says, notes, claims) unless they’re part of a story you’ve set in the past. In that case, stick with the tense of that story.


  1. […] for a reason. Tense choice within the main body of the story is likely to differ depending on the narrative needs of the story. Do not feel that because your lede is in a particular tense, the rest of the story […]

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