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Verb tenses in academic writing – by section

9th June 2020 blog

Academic papers are written mostly in the present simple, past simple, and present perfect tenses, which are covered in our overview of verb tenses. This article offers general guidelines on which verb tenses to use in each section of a thesis, dissertation, or research paper. Note that there may be exceptions; always consult the style guide used in your academic field for confirmation.

In addition to consulting these guidelines, we recommend that you work closely with your academic supervisor as you write and format your paper. Some academic disciplines have very specific requirements regarding the use of tenses, so it’s important to consult academics who are used to writing in your subject area, as well as the relevant style guidelines issued by your university or the journal you hope to be published by.

Abstract or summary

Use the present simple tense to state what the paper investigates and what its goals are, and to report general facts that continue to be true.

This study explores the potential clinical uses of topical compounds.

Membership in the European Union (EU) greatly impacts each member country’s economic policies.

Use the present perfect tense to discuss past research that is relevant to the current study.

Past research has shown that the presence of local fisheries has a direct impact on wild salmon populations.

Philosophers have interpreted this thought experiment differently.

Introduction

Use the present simple tense to explain what the paper is about, how it is structured, and why it’s important, and to define terms and share facts that are widely known and won’t change over time.

Chapter 4 describes the research methodology.

The theory that all actions are intrinsically right or wrong is known as moral absolutism.

Use the past simple tense to provide historical background and context.

Rosalind Franklin contributed greatly to the study of the molecular structure of DNA.

The literary and philosophical movement known as transcendentalism began in the late 1820s.

Use the present perfect tense to present past research that is relevant to your study.

Previous studies have analysed the drug’s effects on adults, but none has focused on adolescents.

Theoretical framework

Use the present simple tense to describe theories and define terms.

In anaerobic respiration, glucose breaks down without oxygen.

A new theory suggests that the Big Bang singularity never occurred and that the universe may have had no beginning.

Literature review

Use the past simple tense to discuss the findings of earlier studies.

Stokes and Chesterfield found that doctors’ treatment recommendations are often ignored by patients.

Use the present simple tense to state facts that do not change over time, to express opinions or propose a thesis statement, and to narrate the plot of a literary work.

Chronic illnesses vary in type and intensity.

At the start of the novel, Ammu moves to Calcutta to live with a distant aunt.

Use the present perfect tense to introduce past research that is relevant to the current study, to address a gap in the current knowledge base, and to correct a dated theory that is no longer accurate.

Previous studies have found that almost one quarter of teenagers experience cyberbullying.

Methods and results

Use the past simple tense to detail your experiments and to discuss events that began and ended in the past. If your paper must avoid using the first person, you will likely use the passive voice in this section, foregrounding the actions taken rather than the researcher(s) who took them.

Over 90% of samples tested positive.

Participants were divided by age group.

Use the present simple tense to describe methodologies that don’t change over time and to refer to figures, charts, tables, or other sections of the paper.

A geographic information system (GIS) presents all types of geographical data.

Chart 3 illustrates the rapid growth of the portfolio’s value.

Discussion and conclusions

Use the present simple tense to interpret data or express an opinion, and to report facts that are unlikely to change in the future.

The results support the hypothesis.

These results imply a strong connection between the variables.

The company does not plan to develop artificial intelligence software.

Use the past simple tense to summarise the results of your own research or discuss studies conducted by others.

The study found that smoking adversely affects pulmonary function.

Limitations

Use the past simple tense to explain the steps taken to conduct the study and its shortcomings.

Qualitative data were collected via surveys.

The sample size was not large enough to be considered representative of the general population.

Use the present simple tense to state widely accepted facts that do not change over time.

Self-reported information is of limited use because it cannot be verified independently.

Recommendations and implications

This section discusses events that may happen in the future. However, no writer can make predictions with absolute certainty. To avoid or ‘soften’ the future tense, use modal verbs, such as can, should, and may; verbs that suggest uncertainty, such as believe, assume, suggest, imply, and expect; and hedging words, such as likely and possibly.

Teacher burnout will likely continue at a high rate.

Early intervention could mitigate these effects.

Use the present simple tense to make recommendations or express opinions. If you are required to avoid using the first person, you may need the passive voice in this section.

We suggest repeating this study with a larger sample size.
This study indicates that women who are at increased risk of pre-eclampsia would be willing to take steps to reduce that risk.

Use the present perfect tense to discuss past actions that are still relevant.

Past legislation has reduced crime rates in similar circumstances.

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