Tense tendencies in academic texts

Different sections of academic papers (theses, dissertations and essays) tend to use different tenses.  The following is a breakdown of these tendencies by section.  Please note that while it is useful to keep these tendencies in mind, there may be exceptions.  The breakdown below should help guide your writing, but keep in mind that you may have to shift tenses in any given section, depending on your topic matter.

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Abstract or Summary

Present simple: for facts and general truisms; to say what the paper does

This thesis examines the ways that ecological poetry relates to political activism.

Our research suggests better economic policies.

Present perfect: for past events or research still relevant to the present

Thinkers have examined how ecological poetry relates to political activism.

Other economists have suggested different economic policies.

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Present simple: to say what the paper does and why it is important

This research is relevant to how we understand the role of poetry.

Effective economic policies help societies to prosper.

Past simple: to provide historical background

In his time, Thoreau concerned himself with living in harmony with nature.

Ronald Reagan’s policies changed America’s political landscape. 

Theoretical Framework

Present simple: to describe theories and provide definitions

In lyric poetry, the speaker presents his perspective on a given situation.

“Reaganomics” refers to the economic policies of Reagan administration.

Literature Review

Present perfect: for past research still relevant to the paper’s current research
Research has shown that the AI market for education will grow to $1.2 billion in 2024.
Past simple: to describe specific steps or actions of past researchers
Tan et al. investigated whether an algorithm could predict student engagement.

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Methods and Results

Past simple: for events that began and ended in the past, such as an experiment

We conducted semi-structured interviews with the participants.

We found that participants had much to say about their workplaces.

A multivariate linear regression was used.

Present simple: to describe a tool’s function (which does not change over time)

Multivariate linear regressions are relevant to use for sets of correlated random variables.

Conclusions or Discussion

Present simple: for interpretations of data

The results indicate a steady increase in net gain for x and y companies.

We cannot conclude that this growth will continue on the basis of this study.


Past simple: for details about how the study happened

The sample size was adequate for a qualitative analysis, but it was not big enough to provide good grounds for predictions.

Recommendations and Implications

Modal auxiliary to indicate lack of a certain outcome or simple future with hedging word: for thoughts on what future studies might focus on, and for careful predictions

Modal auxiliary: Responses to the survey suggest that many more people in this profession may be unsatisfied with their vacation time.

Modal auxiliary: Future research should conduct more sustained investigations of this phenomenon.

Simple future with hedging word: The results of the study indicate that the glaciers will likely continue to melt.

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Bryson, S. (2023, July 23). Tense tendencies in academic texts. Scribbr. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/academic-writing/tense-tendencies/

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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.