A Guide to Verb Tenses in Academic Writing
A common confusion for academic authors is which grammatical tense to use in their manuscripts. According to previous studies on this subject, the most common tenses in academic writing are (1) simple present, (2) simple past, (3) present perfect, and (4) simple future. These four tenses are used in different contexts and are common in different sections of a manuscript. Here, we explain how and where to use these different tenses.
Table of Contents
- Simple present
- Simple past
- Present perfect
- Simple Future
- Help with tense correction
The simple present is typically used to describe something that is happening in the present or something that happens repeatedly or continuously. However, in academic writing, it is often used when time is irrelevant or to describe something that is relevant in the present. This tense is most often used in the Methods section of a research manuscript. The Methods section is often a descriptive listing of the steps that should be taken to replicate the study results. As such, the time at which the authors themselves took those steps is often irrelevant.
- The fiber mixture is then poured into the metal frame.
- The samples are dehydrated for 48 hours.
The simple present can also be used to report discovery results. This is a point of confusion for many authors because they have been led to believe that the Results section should be written strictly in the simple past.
- Exposure to UV rays causes irreversible damage to the epidermis.
In the example above, the simple present is more appropriate because the authors’ discovery is relevant in the present. In other words, the fact that regular exposure to UV rays causes skin damage is true now, not just at the time the study was conducted.
- Around 89% of the treated samples demonstrated higher water resistance.
In this next example, however, the simple past is more appropriate because this is something that happened specifically in the study, which took place in the past.
As mentioned briefly in the last section, the simple past is used to describe something that happened or was true in the past. This is the most common tense used in research papers because the reported studies were conducted in the past.
- The collected samples were analyzed by a third party lab and returned to us over the course of 96 hours.
A key point to note here is that this sentence should not be written in present tense, even though it looks like it could be part of the Methods section. This is because the authors are reporting what they did in the past; the sentence is not presenting a universal step that should be taken in order to replicate the results.
The present perfect is typically used to describe something that happened at an indefinite past time but has relevance in the present or began in the past but is still continuing in the present. This tense is often used in the Background section because studies that are cited in the Background were conducted in the past and are relevant to the present study.
- Previous studies have investigated how a low pH solution can improve several key properties of these composites.
Compare this to the same sentence written using the simple past.
- Previous studies investigated how a low pH solution can improve several key properties of these composites.
It can be observed that using the present perfect here emphasizes the previous studies’ present relevance, which is crucial in the Background section.
The simple future is used to describe something that has not yet happened. In academic writing, this tense is used almost exclusively when referring to planned future work.
- In a future study, the composites will be tested under more diverse conditions.
Simple Past VS Present Perfect
The simple past and present perfect are two tenses that ESL authors often confuse. One difference, as mentioned above, is the relevance of the past in the present. Another important difference, however, lies in the focus: simple past should be used when the focus is on the completed status of an action, whereas present perfect should be used when the focus is on the action and not so much on its status. This also means that the present perfect should be used when the time of the action is not specified.
- A study in 2008 suggested that a similar hydrocarbon could serve as an energy-efficient fuel for rubber production.
- A previous study has suggested that a similar hydrocarbon could serve as an energy-efficient fuel for rubber production.
If you need help with tense correction…
If tense usage is still confusing or if you want to double-check that you have used the correct tenses in your document, you may want to consider using an online grammar checker. Wordvice.ai is a proofreading tool that has been trained with real essays and academic manuscripts. This distinguishes it from other comparable tools, which are focused on business documents or more casual writing purposes. It corrects preposition errors in addition to other grammatical errors. It will also help improve your writing further by suggesting better word choices and stylistic improvements.