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Cheat sheet: Verb tenses in academic writing

9th June 2020 blog

Cheat sheet

No time to read? Here’s the short version:

  • Give preference to the present simple, past simple, and present perfect tenses in academic writing.
  • Different sections of your paper will require different tenses.
  • Only change the tense if the timing of the action changes, that is, if two events occurred at different times or if the continuing relevance of a past event needs to be underlined.
  • Use the progressive and perfect tenses only in specific situations, such as when it’s important to stress the ongoing nature of an action or its relationship to another action.
  • Beware of the future tense, which is only necessary in a limited set of circumstances.

Common verb tenses

Most academic papers are written using these three verb tenses:

 ExampleSpecific functions
Present simpleRodents are useful to researchers.●       State facts

●       Refer to other sections or tables in the paper

●       Present research and discuss findings

Past simpleThe researchers fed the mice a diet high in saturated fats.●       Describe the methodology and report results

●       Cite previous work by other researchers

●       Discuss findings that are no longer accepted as true

Present perfectNumerous studies have assessed the cardiac function of rodents on high-cholesterol diets.●       Refer to past research that remains relevant.

If you’re in doubt about which tense to use, default to the present simple. Use the past simple or present perfect for events that began and ended in the past.

Verb tenses by section

Different sections of an academic text may require different tenses. Some fields of study have very specific guidelines about which tense to use in each section. A scientific journal, for example, may prescribe the present perfect tense for the abstract and the past simple tense for the literature review.

Please see our general guide on which verb tense to use in each section of an academic text.

When to change tense

Inconsistency in the use of verb tenses is a common problem in academic writing.

Martinez (2011) argues that educators are aware of the need for early diagnosis. In her introduction, she stated that early detection is key to treating a learning disorder.

In this case, the writer introduced a published article in the present tense, but then switched to the past tense even though the two verbs (argues and stated) properly refer to the same time frame—when the article was written.

Avoid this error by following a simple rule: only change tense when the timing of the action changes.

The animals’ weight decreased as the feed’s nutritional value decreased. This outcome suggests that feeds with lower nutritional value contribute to livestock weight loss. While scientists have confirmed this relationship, many questions remain.

Here, the past simple tense (decreased) is used to discuss the results of a scientific investigation that was completed in the past. The writer switches to present simple (suggest and contribute) to describe a conclusion that is unlikely to change—even if consulted at a later date, the data gathered in the study will continue to suggest this conclusion. The writer then uses the present perfect tense (have confirmed) to refer to other research that scientists have conducted in the recent past and that is relevant to the current discussion. Finally, the present tense (remain) refers to the current state of knowledge.

This example shows that a writer can change tense several times within a paragraph or even within a sentence to accurately convey changes in the timing of the narrative.

Simplify verbs whenever possible

Sometimes, writers complicate their sentences unnecessarily by using progressive and perfect tenses.

The author has been arguing for social reform.

This paper is analysing the effect of temperature on soil quality.

Japan had been experiencing a period of economic stagnation after the 1992 crash.

Doctors were stating that Wilma Rudolph would require leg braces to counter the effects of childhood polio.

Rephrase such sentences by replacing progressive and perfect tenses with simple tenses. The result is clearer and more direct.

The author argues for social reform.

This paper analyses the effect of temperature on soil quality.

Japan experienced a period of economic stagnation after the 1992 crash.

Doctors stated that Wilma Rudolph would require leg braces to counter the effects of childhood polio.

When to use progressive and perfect tenses

Progressive (or continuous) tenses pair the auxiliary verb to be with another verb ending in ‑ing to indicate that an action is or was still unfolding. Only use a progressive tense (whether the present progressive or past progressive) if it’s important to emphasize the ongoing nature of the action, especially if an activity is interrupted or changed by another action or state of affairs.

Work on the building project is continuing despite the architect’s absence.

I was preparing dinner when the earthquake struck.

A perfect tense links the auxiliary verb to have with another verb in the past tense to indicate a completed event. Only use a perfect tense (whether present perfect or past perfect) to emphasize that something about the past is still relevant.

While archaeologists have discovered many artefacts at the site, the location of the chieftain’s tomb remains a mystery.

Although the artist had painted portraits early in her career, scholars hold her later murals in higher regard.

Avoiding the future tense

Soften language around predictions

While most of your paper will be written in the past and present tenses, you may also find yourself talking about future events.

Legislators will not be able to escape the ramifications of their inaction.

However, even the most confident writer cannot predict the future, so avoid using assertive expressions like will, shall, or going to. Instead, use modal verbs like can, may, could, would, and ought to acknowledge uncertainty. You can also add words like likely and unlikely to soften predictions.

Legislators may not be able to escape the ramifications of their inaction.

Avoid overstatements and strong personal opinions in academic writing; showing prudence will lend greater credibility to your research.

Use the present tense to discuss the paper itself

Writers often use the future tense to discuss later sections of their paper.

This paper will analyse the use of rhetorical tropes in Dryden’s poetry.

Chapter 3 will discuss the environmental significance of the research, while Chapter 4 will explore the link between energy use and poverty.

Using the future tense here is inappropriate because by the time a reader looks at these lines, the paper and all its sections will already exist. Since the content of the paper won’t change after it’s published or submitted, the present simple tense is the best choice.

This paper analyses the use of rhetorical tropes in Dryden’s poetry.

Chapter 3 discusses the environmental significance of the research, while Chapter 4 explores the link between energy use and poverty.

Research proposals are an exception. If you’re planning to conduct research in the future, then the future tense is necessary.

The analysis will address the implications of wage increases in the community.

The proposed experiment will study the drug’s impact on the social behaviour of mice.

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