Common uses of tenses in academic writing
Knowing when to use which tense in your thesis 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”):
|Simple Present||used for facts, generalizations, and truths that are not affected by the passage of time||“She writes papers for her classes.”|
|Simple Past||used for events completed in the past||“She wrote papers for her classes.”|
|Simple Future||used for events to be completed in the future||“She will write papers for her classes.”|
|Perfect Present||used to emphasize an event whose consequences are still relevant||“She has written papers for her classes.”|
|Perfect Past||used 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 Future||used 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).”|
|Progressive1Present||used to emphasize the continuing nature of an event (usually a temporary one)||“She is writing her paper for her class.”|
|Progressive Past||used to emphasize the setting of other events in the past||“She was writing her paper for her class (when her pencil broke).”|
|Progressive Future||used 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 Present||used 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 Past||used 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 Future||used 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.
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).
|Tense||Common Use in Academics|
|Present Simple||The 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 Simple||Commonly 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 Simple||Rather 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 mayrecur 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 willprobably recur frequently.”|
|Present Perfect||Most 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 Perfect||Not 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 Perfect||Not commonly used in academic work (see note on Future Simple).|
|Present Progressive||This 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 Progressive||Not commonly used in academic work (see note on Present Progressive).|
|Future Progressive||Not commonly used in academic work (see note on Present Progressive).|
|Present Perfect-progressive||Not commonly used in academic work (see note on Present Progressive).|
|Past Perfect-progressive||Not commonly used in academic work (see notes on Present Progressive and Past Perfect).|
|Future Perfect-progressive||Not commonly used in academic work (see notes on Present Progressive and Future Simple).|