Using the proper tenses within an academic paper is crucial in terms of brevity, clarity, and readability.
There can still be times when choosing a specific tense may be slightly confusing. The good news is that things are not as complicated as they might appear.
As Cambridge University Press notes, most students will require only a few tenses to convey their thoughts.1
Verbs alert the reader that a specific action is occurring or has occurred. However, these very same vehicles illustrate slightly more when found within an academic paper.
Tenses are often employed to display how the author feels about the subject being reported. They may also be leveraged to demonstrate the chronology of specific events.2
Most commonly used tenses in academic writing
Three tenses are commonly used in academic writing: the present simple, the past simple, and the present perfect. The following paragraphs introduce the functions as well as give examples.
The present simple
Often considered to be the most common tense, the present simple serves several functions:
- To emphasize the primary focus of the article.
- To reinforce what is presently known about a topic.
- To make general observations and statements.
- To reference previous papers as well as current tables and figures.
The past simple
Let us now examine when the past simple can be used as well as some examples:
- Reporting findings from a previous study where the author is named.
- Discuss what methods and/or data were utilized.
- Highlighting the results of ongoing research.
- Emphasizing that an event occurred in the past.
The present perfect
Let’s finally discuss the present perfect tense, as well as when it is most often used.
- When introducing new subject matter.
- Generally summarizing what has already taken place.
- Citing prior findings without mentioning other authors.
- Making connections between the past and the present.
Tenses used in different sections of a paper
A scientific paper is made up of different sections, like the abstract or methodology. Each of these requires a certain tense. The following segments will state and explain which tense is used in which component.
Tenses in the abstract
Most experts agree that the present simple tense is best utilized within the abstract.3 This is a clear way to state facts and highlight the subsequent results.
Tenses in the introduction
Introductions are normally used to present background details as well as information that is already assumed to be valid. Therefore, both the present perfect and the present simple tense can be used.
Tenses in the theoretical framework
Theoretical frameworks are intended to reinforce an existing theory, as well as why the issue in question exists. Therefore, the majority of the information should be addressed with the present simple or the present perfect.4
Tenses in the methodology and results section
The methodology of the study and the results will always occur before a conclusion is reached. Therefore, it is best to employ the past simple tense.
Tenses in the conclusion
In many cases, a combination of past and present tense verbs can be used when presenting a conclusion (depending upon what is being discussed).
Tenses in the literature review
As literature reviews discuss and interpret previous findings, the past simple tense is often the best choice.
Three verb tenses represent the lion’s share of those utilized within an academic paper. The most common tenses are:
- Present simple
- Past simple
- Past perfect
One of the main reasons behind this approach involves clarity. Superfluous text can be confusing to the reader, and it may even detract from the subject material being presented. Simplifying verb conjugations will also free up space for additional information.
There are certain times when other tenses can be used.
One example may occur if the writer wishes to convey the importance of a prediction or possible event. In this case, the future simple tense (the results will show…) may be employed.5
Three popular options include:
Note that each of these provides free demonstration versions.
1 Caplan, Nigel. “Cambridge Blog: How many tenses do students really have to learn?.” Cambridge. October 25, 2015. https://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2015/10/25/many-tenses-students-really-need-learn/.
2 Enago Academy. “How to Use Tenses in Academic Writing Effectively.” May 04, 2018. https://www.enago.com/academy/tense-usage-in-academic-writing/.
3 Magnum, Jake. “Using the Present Tense and Past Tense When Writing an Abstract.” Magnum Proofreading Services. March 17, 2021. https://www.magnumproofreading.com/post/using-the-present-tense-and-past-tense-when-writing-an-abstract/.
4 Hall Johnson, Suzanne. “Mastering Verb Tenses in Literature Reviews.” OnlineLibraryWiley. Accessed on September 08, 2022, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1750-4910.2004.tb00526.x.
5 LearnGrammar. “Examples of Simple Future Tenses.” Accessed on September 08, 2022. https://www.learngrammar.net/a/examples-of-simple-future-tense.