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: past, present, and future. In English, each of these tenses can take four main aspects: simple, perfect, continuous (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 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.
|Present simple||used for facts, generalizations, and truths that are not affected by the passage of time||“She writes a lot of papers for her classes.”|
|Past simple||used for events completed in the past||“She wrote the papers for all of her classes last month.”|
|Future simple||used for events to be completed in the future||“She will write papers for her classes next semester.”|
|Present perfect||used 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 perfect||used 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 perfect||used 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 continuous||used to describe currently ongoing (usually temporary) actions||“She is writing a paper for her class.”|
|Past continuous||used 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 continuous||used 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 continuous||used 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 continuous||used 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 continuous||used 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 find, discover 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.
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 expect, predict, 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 (can, could, may, might).
- 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.
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.