Verb tenses in academic writing

Tense communicates an event’s location in time. The different tenses are identified by their associated verb forms.

There are three main tenses: pastpresent, and future. In English, each of these tenses can take four main aspects: simpleperfectcontinuous (also known as progressive), and perfect continuous. The perfect aspect is formed using the verb to have, while the continuous aspect is formed using the verb to be.

In academic writing, the most commonly used tenses are the present simple, the past simple, and the present perfect.

Tenses in different sections of a dissertation 

Tenses and their functions

The table below gives an overview of some of the basic functions of tenses and aspects. Tenses locate an event in time, while aspects communicate durations and relationships between events that happen at different times.

TenseFunctionExample
Present simpleused for facts, generalizations, and truths that are not affected by the passage of time“She writes a lot of papers for her classes.”
Past simpleused for events completed in the past“She wrote the papers for all of her classes last month.”
Future simpleused for events to be completed in the future“She will write papers for her classes next semester.”
Present perfectused to describe events that began in the past and are expected to continue, or to emphasize the relevance of past events to the present moment“She has written papers for most of her classes, but she still has some papers left to write.”
Past perfectused to describe events that happened prior to other events in the past“She had written several papers for her classes before she switched universities.”
Future perfectused to describe events that will be completed between now and a specific point in the future“She will have written many papers for her classes by the end of the semester.”
Present continuousused to describe currently ongoing (usually temporary) actions“She is writing a paper for her class.”
Past continuousused to describe ongoing past events, often in relation to the occurrence of another event“She was writing a paper for her class when her pencil broke.”
Future continuousused to describe future events that are expected to continue over a period of time“She will be writing a lot of papers for her classes next year.”
Present perfect continuousused to describe events that started in the past and continue into the present or were recently completed, emphasizing their relevance to the present moment“She has been writing a paper all night, and now she needs to get some sleep.”
Past perfect continuousused to describe events that began, continued, and ended in the past, emphasizing their relevance to a past moment“She had been writing a paper all night, and she needed to get some sleep.”
Future perfect continuousused to describe events that will continue up until a point in the future, emphasizing their expected duration“She will have been writing this paper for three months when she hands it in.”

When to use the present simple

The present simple is the most commonly used tense in academic writing, so if in doubt, this should be your default choice of tense. There are two main situations where you always need to use the present tense.

Describing facts, generalizations, and explanations

Facts that are always true do not need to be located in a specific time, so they are stated in the present simple. You might state these types of facts when giving background information in your introduction.

  • The Eiffel tower is in Paris.
  • Light travels faster than sound.

Similarly, theories and generalizations based on facts are expressed in the present simple.

  • Average income differs by race and gender.
  • Older people express less concern about the environment than younger people.

Explanations of terms, theories, and ideas should also be written in the present simple.

  • Photosynthesis refers to the process by which plants convert sunlight into chemical energy.
  • According to Piketty (2013), inequality grows over time in capitalist economies.

Describing the content of a text

Things that happen within the space of a text should be treated similarly to facts and generalizations.

This applies to fictional narratives in books, films, plays, etc. Use the present simple to describe the events or actions that are your main focus; other tenses can be used to mark different times within the text itself.

  • In the first novel, Harry learns he is a wizard and travels to Hogwarts for the first time, finally escaping the constraints of the family that raised him.

The events in the first part of the sentence are the writer’s main focus, so they are described in the present tense. The second part uses the past tense to add extra information about something that happened prior to those events within the book.

When discussing and analyzing nonfiction, similarly, use the present simple to describe what the author does within the pages of the text (argues, explains, demonstrates, etc).

  • In The History of Sexuality, Foucault asserts that sexual identity is a modern invention.
  • Paglia (1993) critiques Foucault’s theory.

This rule also applies when you are describing what you do in your own text. When summarizing the research in your abstract, describing your objectives, or giving an overview of the dissertation structure in your introduction, the present simple is the best choice of tense.

  • This research aims to synthesize the two theories.
  • Chapter 3 explains the methodology and discusses ethical issues.
  • The paper concludes with recommendations for further research.

When to use the past simple

The past simple should be used to describe completed actions and events, including steps in the research process and historical background information.

Reporting research steps

Whether you are referring to your own research or someone else’s, use the past simple to report specific steps in the research process that have been completed.

  • Olden (2017) recruited 17 participants for the study.
  • We transcribed and coded the interviews before analyzing the results.

The past simple is also the most appropriate choice for reporting the results of your research.

  • All of the focus group participants agreed that the new version was an improvement.
  • We found a positive correlation between the variables, but it was not as strong as we hypothesized.

Describing historical events

Background information about events that took place in the past should also be described in the past simple tense.

  • James Joyce pioneered the modernist use of stream of consciousness.
  • Donald Trump’s election in 2016 contradicted the predictions of commentators.

When to use the present perfect

The present perfect is used mainly to describe past research that took place over an unspecified time period. You can also use it to create a connection between the findings of past research and your own work.

Summarizing previous work

When summarizing a whole body of research or describing the history of an ongoing debate, use the present perfect.

  • Many researchers have investigated the effects of poverty on health.
  • Studies have shown a link between cancer and red meat consumption.
  • Identity politics has been a topic of heated debate since the 1960s.
  • The problem of free will has vexed philosophers for centuries.

Similarly, when mentioning research that took place over an unspecified time period in the past (as opposed to a specific step or outcome of that research), use the present perfect instead of the past tense.

  • Green et al. have conducted extensive research on the ecological effects of wolf reintroduction.

Emphasizing the present relevance of previous work

When describing the outcomes of past research with verbs like finddiscover or demonstrate, you can use either the past simple or the present perfect.

The present perfect is a good choice to emphasize the continuing relevance of a piece of research and its consequences for your own work. It implies that the current research will build on, follow from, or respond to what previous researchers have done.

  • Smith (2015) has found that younger drivers are involved in more traffic accidents than older drivers, but more research is required to make effective policy recommendations.
  • As Monbiot (2013) has shown, ecological change is closely linked to social and political processes.

Note, however, that the facts and generalizations that emerge from past research are reported in the present simple.

When to use other tenses

While the above are the most commonly used tenses in academic writing, there are many cases where you’ll use other tenses to make distinctions between times.

Future simple

The future simple is used for making predictions or stating intentions. You can use it in a research proposal to describe what you intend to do.

It is also sometimes used for making predictions and stating hypotheses. Take care, though, to avoid making statements about the future that imply a high level of certainty. It’s often a better choice to use other verbs like expectpredict, and assume to make more cautious statements.

  • There will be a strong positive correlation.
  • We expect to find a strong positive correlation.
  • H1 predicts a strong positive correlation.

Similarly, when discussing the future implications of your research, rather than making statements with will, try to use other verbs or modal verbs that imply possibility (cancouldmaymight).

  • These findings will influence future approaches to the topic.
  • These findings could influence future approaches to the topic.

Present, past, and future continuous

The continuous aspect is not commonly used in academic writing. It tends to convey an informal tone, and in most cases, the present simple or present perfect is a better choice.

  • Some scholars are suggesting that mainstream economic paradigms are no longer adequate.
  • Some scholars suggest that mainstream economic paradigms are no longer adequate.
  • Some scholars have suggested that mainstream economic paradigms are no longer adequate.

However, in certain types of academic writing, such as literary and historical studies, the continuous aspect might be used in narrative descriptions or accounts of past events. It is often useful for positioning events in relation to one another.

  • While Harry is traveling to Hogwarts for the first time, he meets many of the characters who will become central to the narrative.
  • The country was still recovering from the recession when Donald Trump was elected.

Past perfect

Similarly, the past perfect is not commonly used, except in disciplines that require making fine distinctions between different points in the past or different points in a narrative’s plot.

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Is this article helpful?
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.

11 comments

Subashree
July 28, 2018 at 2:16 PM

Hello Scribbr team,

Good one :) very useful indeed!

I have one small query though.

What if we are talking about the the solutions which have to happen in the future, can we use future perfect tense in our essay then?

eg: Stricter measures will have to be implemented.

Reply

Victoria Mrosek
Victoria Mrosek (Scribbr-team)
July 29, 2018 at 11:42 AM

Dear Subashree,
Thanks for your positive feedback!
Regarding your question, it's fine to use future tense if you speak about future research. But you should make sure to use respective keywords.
I hope that helps.
Lots of success with your essay!

Reply

lily
February 16, 2018 at 10:35 AM

Sorry, not useful

Reply

Lorenza Shabe
Lorenza Shabe (Scribbr-team)
February 16, 2018 at 11:38 AM

Hi Lily,
Could you please elaborate on how this article was not helpful for you?

Reply

mehwash kashif
July 30, 2015 at 8:57 PM

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

Reply

Bas Swaen
Bas Swaen (Scribbr-team)
July 31, 2015 at 11:53 AM

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

Reply

Sherry
April 19, 2015 at 9:00 AM

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

Reply

Shane Bryson
Shane Bryson (Scribbr-team)
April 22, 2015 at 3:25 PM

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."

Reply

Jan Robben
April 7, 2015 at 4:01 PM

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

Reply

Shane Bryson
Shane Bryson (Scribbr-team)
April 8, 2015 at 11:57 AM

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!

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