Although there are many verb tenses you can use in the English language, 98% of academic writing uses three tenses.
These are the present simple tense, the simple past tense, and the present perfect
In this guide, we will learn about these tenses and when they should be used in academic writing.
Definition: Verb tenses
The tense of a verb determines when an action takes place. By checking the tense of a verb, you can determine whether the action happened in the past, is happening right now, or will happen in the future.
While there are many tenses, academic writing usually employs the present simple tense, the past simple tense, and the present perfect tense.1
The importance of using the right verb tenses in academic writing
By using the correct verb tense, you will be able to clearly express the time relationship among the ideas presented.
When choosing verb tenses to use in academic writing, you should aim for consistency, clarity, and simplicity. You should try to stick to the present simple, past simple, and present perfect tense.2 3
Understanding verb tenses and their aspects
Verbs in the English language can be converted to present or past tense.
In order to refer to events that will happen in the future, you have to use a modal verb (“will”) or the present progressive tense.
When using verb tenses, it is important to understand the aspects of verb tenses. These are simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive. Here are some examples to illustrate:
The 3 key verb tenses in academic writing
In academic writing, the most commonly used verb tenses are the present simple, past simple, and present perfect tense. Let’s look at each of these verb tenses in detail.
In academic writing, present simple verb tenses can describe actions that happen continuously or habitually. For example:
- Doctors in the European Union treat patients without private health insurance.
- Researchers dismiss their bias and instead check the scientific evidence to come up with conclusions.
- Immigrants cross the US border to find better job opportunities.
These verb tenses can also be used to describe a general truth, as you can see in this example:
- Islam prohibits its followers from eating pork.
- The Chinese economy grows by approximately 8% every year.
- Bodybuilders take supplements to boost their muscle growth.
You can use the past simple verb tenses to describe actions that were completed at a specific point in the past. For example:
- King John ruled England from 1199 to 1216.
- We walked ten miles that day.
- The family lived in Oxford in the 1960s.
These verb tenses are also used to indicate that an action took place in the past, and from general knowledge or common sense, we are certain that it was completed. For example:
- The Romans invaded and conquered Egypt.
- Ludwig Krapf explored East Africa and recorded Mt Kilimanjaro.4
The present perfect verb tense is also used commonly in academic writing, and you can use it when referring to previous research. The verb tenses would indicate that the research is still relevant in the present time. In the following example, the present perfect tense is used to introduce new topics, reports, or papers:
- A lot of research has been done to determine the impacts of industrialization on climate change.
The present perfect tense is also used to summarize the findings of previous research. For example:
- Studies conducted on different communities have found that cultivating gratitude increases contentment.
This verb tense also allows researchers to point out gaps in existing research and gives them a chance to indicate how they will add value to the existing studies. For example:
- Although these studies have proved that religious people are happier, it is still unclear how the two are co-related.
With the present perfect tense, you will also be able to refer to previous research without having to mention them. For example:
- It has been proven that religious people have lower anxiety levels.5
Using other verb tenses in academic writing
When writing proposals, you will occasionally need to use the future simple tense to describe actions that will happen at some point in the future.
You can also use the present progressive tense when describing events that are evolving at the time of writing.
In academic writing, people mostly use:
- Present simple tense
- Past simple tense
- Present perfect tense.
The present simple tense is used when an action is happening right now or happens regularly, while the present perfect tense is used for actions that took place in the past and continued to the present time.
With the simple past tense, writers are able to talk about actions that were completed at a time before now.
As an academic writer, you can mix different tenses in a sentence and paragraph; you just need to make sure they are used appropriately for the context.
If the actions in the sentence or paragraph happen at the same time, you will have to use the same tense for all of them. Otherwise, you can switch the tenses as the context demands.
When referring to actions that will come in the academic paper, the writer should use the present or future tense.
- In this study, I will discuss the impacts of industrialization on the economy.
If you want to refer to information that was covered previously in the paper, you have to use the past tense.
Active voice is commonly used to describe actions in academic writing, and it generally clarifies your sentences’ meaning.
You can use passive voice to describe processes and various research results.
You should remember that these are simply guidelines you should follow, and you should judge whether you should use active or passive voice with the verb tenses depending on the context.
¹ Ellis, Matt. “What Is the Present Perfect Tense?” Grammarly. July 19, 2022. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/present-perfect-tense/.
² Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad, and Edward Finegan. “Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.” March, 2001. https://doi.org/10.1162/089120101300346831.
³ Enago Academy. “How to Effectively Use Active and Passive Voice in Academic Writing.” November 16, 2021. https://www.enago.com/academy/active-and-passive-voice-in-academic-writing/.
⁴ George Mason University. “The Three Common Tenses Used in Academic Writing.” 2017. https://writingcenter.gmu.edu/writing-resources/grammar-style/the-three-common-tenses-used-in-academic-writing.
⁵ Shrives, Craig. “What Is the Present Progressive Tense? (with Examples).” Grammar Monster. Accessed November 15, 2022. https://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/present_progressive_tense.htm.