Verb Tenses in Academic Writing

You may have read in ‘Understanding Verb Forms—Part One’ that verbs can come in various forms including present and past tense. By choosing these verb forms appropriately and consistently in your academic writing, your thoughts will come across clearly and logically to the reader.

When should I use past tense?

Past tense is used when you are discussing past events (Treddinick, 2008). Therefore, you should use past tense to give the findings of past research, to describe your methods and to discuss your results (American Psychological Association [APA], 2010).

When should I use present tense?

Present tense is used when you are discussing current events (APA, 2010). In your writing, you should use present tense to discuss the importance and implications of your research and results and to highlight your conclusions (APA, 2010). Present perfect tense should be used to discuss ongoing research.

An example of verb tense use in academic writing

Introduction. Use present tense to provide a background to and discuss the importance of your research. For example:

Type 2 diabetes mellitus is a major global health problem for which there is currently no cure.

Background/Literature Review. Use past tense to give the findings of past research and perfect present tense to discuss its continued relevance. For example:

Research has shown the benefits of the DASH diet on blood pressure. A recent study found the diet significantly improved systolic and diastolic blood pressure in hypertensive individuals.

Methods. Use past tense to describe what procedures you undertook in your study. For example:

For a period of eight weeks, participants in the diet group consumed a Mediterranean diet while the control group consumed a low-fat diet.

Results. In this section, use past tense to describe and summarise your results. For example:

Results indicated that a Mediterranean diet improved cognitive function in persons over 70 years of age.

Discussion. Use present tense to discuss the implications of your results and research. For example:

Supplementation of infant formula with poly-unsaturated fatty acids appears beneficial for preterm infants.

Conclusion. Use present tense to highlight your conclusions. For example:

Further research is needed to identify the cause of type 2 diabetes mellitus.

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