Common uses of tenses in academic writing

Date published by Date updated: March 27, 2017

Knowing when to use which tense in your dissertation or dissertation is a common problem for both native and non-native writers in English. This article aims to outline the basic uses of different tenses in academic writing.

Tense communicates an event’s place in time, and the different tenses are identified by their associated verb forms. We can categorize tenses in two different ways: first, we can think of past, present, and future. Second, each of these tenses can take four aspects: simple, perfect, progressive, and perfect-progressive.

As a refresher, here is a basic breakdown of some of the basic functions of tenses and aspects (note that the perfect aspect is characterized by the use of the verb “to have,” and the progressive by “to be”):

TenseFunctionExample
Simple Presentused for facts, generalizations, and truths that are not affected by the passage of time“She writes papers for her classes.”
Simple Pastused for events completed in the past“She wrote papers for her classes.”
Simple Futureused for events to be completed in the future“She will write papers for her classes.”
Perfect Presentused to emphasize an event whose consequences are still relevant“She has written papers for her classes.”
Perfect Pastused to emphasize an event whose consequences were still relevant at an implied or stated past time“She had written papers for her classes (just before she switched universities).”
Perfect Futureused to emphasize an event whose consequences will still be relevant at an implied or stated future time“She will have written papers for her classes (when she graduates).”
Progressive1 Presentused to emphasize the continuing nature of an event (usually a temporary one)“She is writing her paper for her class.”
Progressive Pastused to emphasize the setting of other events in the past“She was writing her paper for her class (when her pencil broke).”
Progressive Futureused to emphasize the setting of other events expected to take place in the future“She will be writing her paper for her class (when we arrive).”
Perfect-progressive Presentused to emphasize the continuing nature of events that ended recently and are still relevant“She has been writing her papers for her classes.”
Perfect-progressive Pastused to emphasize the continuing nature of events that ended just before an implied or stated past time and that were still relevant at that time“She had been writing her papers for her classes (just before she switched universities).”
Perfect-progressive Futureused to emphasize the continuing nature of events that will end just before an implied or stated future time and that will still be relevant to the that time“She will have been writing her papers for her classes (all night long by the time she finishes them).”

1 In English, Progressive is also called Continuous.

Samples of tenses per dissertation section

Tense in a thesis or dissertation

What follows is a table that outlines the various tenses that are used in theses and dissertations and the purposes they are most commonly put to. First, though, it’s worth saying that the future tense and the progressive aspect are by far the least common in academic writing.

The future tense is not often used in academic texts because it tends to carry the tone of a prediction with a high level of certainty. Since academics are expected to be cautious about their assertions, making predictions with a sense of certainty is often (though not always) inappropriate.

To solve this problem, when describing a future time an academic writer should consider using modal verbs other than will (the verb that most commonly denotes future tense).

Modal verbs express possibility, and common examples of modal verbs include will, shall, could, would, ought, can, and may. They can appear in any tense but have a special use, since many of them (with exceptions such as will and shall) do not refer with certainty to anything that actually happened, happens, or will happen.

Progressive aspects, on the other hand, may be generally absent from academic writing for at least three reasons.

First, it is not so often that an academic needs emphasize that something is ongoing. Second, because the progressive aspect is used frequently in conversational English, it may lend an undesirable, informal tone to the writing. Finally, unless a writer has a specific need to emphasize that something is ongoing, the progressive aspect may force overuse of the verb “to be” and inflate the writing with unneeded uses of present participles (i.e. verbs modified with “ing,” such as “going”) where the simple aspect would be more concise—rather than “is going” (progressive), we have “goes” (simple).

TenseCommon Use in Academics
Present SimpleThe tense most commonly used in academics, since academic study generally concerns what is and is not the case (i.e. in academics we are primarily concerned with establishing the facts of a given matter and making sensible generalization about that matter). It is worth noting here that abstracts are most often given in the present tense, even while they communicate information about other sections that normally use the past (as when an abstract describes key points of a study’s methods). This is because the abstract is primarily to talk about the paper itself, which will remain the same over the passage of time. Also worth noting, background information is usually described in relation to the present state of knowledge about a subject. As such, background information is often given in the present tense.
Past SimpleCommonly used in case studies or descriptions of historical events. Additionally, this is the primary tense used in the methods and results sections of reports, since these sections should emphasize experiments and procedures that began and ended in the past. Also found in the conclusions section of reports when referring to these experiments and procedures as they were carried out.
Future SimpleRather than using the future tense, which will normally use will, it is often preferable to use other modal verbs, which help an author maintain a cautious tone. For example, rather than “Our study suggests that the phenomenon will recur frequently,” an author might write, “Our study suggests that the phenomenon may recur frequently”. A writer might also choose to keep the future tense, but add a hedging word to be more cautious: “Our study suggests that the phenomenon will probably recur frequently.”
Present PerfectMost often used in literature reviews, where the focus is on examining work done in the past that is relevant to the current concerns of the paper. Also used for references to past relevant work more generally, regardless of which section of a paper these references appear.
Past PerfectNot commonly used in academic work, except in certain disciplines (such as history and literary studies) that need to make fine distinctions between different points in the past or different points in a narrative’s plot.
Future PerfectNot commonly used in academic work (see note on Future Simple).
Present ProgressiveThis and other progressive aspects may be used, for example, in literary studies where there is a need describe the actions of a character in a particular scene, or in philosophy when a writer conducts a thought experiment, but the progressive aspect is not commonly used in academic writing. Unless there is a specific need to emphasize the continuing nature of an action, it will often be preferable to revert to a simple aspect. For example, instead of “In this passage Dr. X is saying that…”, an author might write, “In this passage Dr. X says that…”. The second version is both more concise and more formal.
Past ProgressiveNot commonly used in academic work (see note on Present Progressive).
Future ProgressiveNot commonly used in academic work (see note on Present Progressive).
Present Perfect-progressiveNot commonly used in academic work (see note on Present Progressive).
Past Perfect-progressiveNot commonly used in academic work (see notes on Present Progressive and Past Perfect).
Future Perfect-progressiveNot commonly used in academic work (see notes on Present Progressive and Future Simple).
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Article by Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master’s degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

6 comments

  1. Jan Robben:

    Dear Mr Bryson,

    thanks for your helpful summary on the use of tenses in academic writing.

    However, I still have one question concerning the writing of academic case studies:
    For historical events throughout the study, I use past tense. But how do I cope with ongoing events that just “started” during the case study? Events/business practices that started in the past, but are still continuing and will continue in the future?
    Example: “Since August 2014, the company XY APPLIES/APPLIED/HAS APPLIED (?) the new way of steering the process XY.”

    Would you recommend present or present perfect and why?

    Your answer would help me a lot.

    Best regards
    Jan Robben

    • Shane Bryson (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Jan,

      Thanks for your question.

      I’d recommend the present perfect or the present perfect-progressive.

      For events that began in the past but continue to effect the present, we usually go with present perfect (present conjugation of “to have” + past participle: e.g., “have/has applied”).

      (note: “Past participles” are a form of verb that usually ends in “–ed” or “–en,” and “present participles” are a form of verb that ends in “–ing.”)

      However, if you’d like to emphasize the ongoing nature of a still-relevant event that began in the past, you can add the progressive aspect to this. So, you’ve got an occasion for the present perfect-progressive (present conjugation of “to have” + past participle of “to be” [i.e. “been”] + present participle; e.g., “have been applying”). It’s good to avoid the progressive aspect where it’s unneeded, but in the case that you want this emphasis, it’s needed.

      Let’s take your example in a little more detail (I simplify it a little bit). Normally, when we use “since” to talk about a time (as opposed to a cause), we’ll find ourselves in the present perfect because we’ll usually mean the time at which a still-relevant event began: “Since August, 2014, the company has applied a new method.” (It’s also possible to have the past perfect with “since”: “Since Socrates had died, the city of Athens felt empty.”)

      As a side note, it’s worth noting that, depending on the context, this sentence could mean that at some point between now and August, 2014, the company started applying said method. If it is important to be clear that the application of the new method started in the month of August, 2014, it’s probably clearer to say, “The company began applying a new method in August, 2014, and has applied it ever since.” This all depends on context: whether or not this matter has been clarified already, and whether or not it matters.

      Adding the progressive aspect is a choice of emphasis. If you want the emphasis to fall on the ongoing nature of this same event (i.e. on the fact that it’s happening now), add “been” to either formulation we have above:

      “Since August 2014, the company has been applying a new method.”

      or

      “The company began applying a new method in August of 2014 and has been applying it ever since.”

      Hope that helps!

  2. Sherry:

    Dear Mr Bryson,

    Your article is really helpful. I am just wondering that what tense I should use if I am going to write a video/book/film review? Is it have to be the past tense, or I could use the present tense? Thank you very much.

    Best Regards,

    Sherry

    • Shane Bryson (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Sherry,

      I’m glad you find the article helpful!

      I advise you to write your review in the present tense, since usually we talk about literature and cinema in the present tense.

      There are a philosophical and a practical reason for tensing it in the present. The more philosophical reason is that a book or a movie does the same thing over and over each time you look at it. In other words, in a review it’s a bit odd to say “the book said” or “Ishmael boarded the Pequod” or “the movie lacked character development” because the all of these things happen with each viewing; we don’t need to think of them as past events, even though you might have observed them in the past.

      The more practical reason is that tensing your discussion in the present makes it easier for you to differentiate between times in the book or movie. Consider a case in which you want to talk about a certain moment in the book or movie, but in talking about that moment it’s helpful for you to talk about events that precede it in the narrative. In this case, you can cast the preceding events in the past tense, but keep the moment you want to focus on in the present. For example, “Ishmael spent time in the navy. Later, while aboard Ahab’s whaling ship, the Pequod, Ishmael often compares sailors in the navy to the whalers he sees around him.”

      For these reasons, most of the time it’s best to write about stories (in reviews or in other literary criticism) in the present tense. The exception occurs when you want to emphasize the story as a piece of history, but your probably don’t need to worry about that too much in a review.”

  3. mehwash kashif:

    Hi shane. Hope you are doing good. kindly send me the full refrence of this article as I have to cite it in one of my articles on medical writing. waiting for your reply
    regards

    • Bas Swaen (Scribbr-team):

      Hi Mehwash, Wat do you mean with the full reference? Is there not already everything you need for the reference on this webpage?

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