Get the right tenses in your next essay

Tense about tenses

posted in: English language | 3

Verb conjugations

I don’t remember being taught about the English tenses in school English language lessons, but perhaps I have reached such an age that recollection of these lessons has simply faded into the mists of time. Of course, we learned about tenses in foreign language classes, like French and German, and spent many an unhappy hour laboriously writing out verb conjugations. (This was old-school education!) I came across this again in later life when I decided to brush up my French and found myself learning all about the pluparfait and the passé composé once again. There are twelve tenses in English and there are lots of useful tips, charts, and exercises on the internet.

Checking verb agreement is an important function in academic proofreading and I think that most native English speakers will agree that it’s something that comes naturally. You usually know instinctively when a verb phrase ‘sounds right’. I’ve proofread a number of dissertations throughout the summer and noticed that there were various styles adopted for the different sections of a fairly standard format research paper. Sometimes the tenses do get a bit mixed up, which I can unravel. I think it’s an easy error to make when you’re writing a long paper over a period of time. The best advice is to decide on the tense styles before you start writing and stick to them.

Writing an academic paper

I did some research of my own and discovered that there’s no general consensus on the tenses to be used for each section. Some institutions and academic journals have specific guidelines about writing style, so always check there first. Other referencing and style guides have preferences too, so if you have to use a particular style check whether there are any preferences for the use of tenses.

If the style is down to your own individual choice then the suggestions below seem to be those most favoured by academics, according to my research:

Suggested tenses

Research proposal – only use the future tense: ‘this research will focus on…’
Abstract – past: ‘this research focused on…’
Introduction – present tense: ‘this research focuses on…’
Literature review – past: ‘Bloggs (2005) stated that…’
Methodology – past: ‘This research used semi-structured interviews…’
Results  past tense for results obtained: ‘The research found that…’ but present for figures and tables: ‘Figure one shows the distribution of samples…’
Discussion – present tense to explain significance: ‘This research contributes to the ongoing investigation into…’ and past to interpret the findings: ‘The large number of negative responses showed that…’
Conclusion/future direction – a combination of tenses can be used to highlight past results, but the future direction should be outlined using the present or future tense: ‘Further research using a larger sample will enable researchers to identify…’

Do you use the same format or do you have a different outline of tenses? I’m interested – leave a comment and let me know.

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3 Responses

  1. Nicola Everitt

    Hi Liz! Your list of suggestive tenses is a really useful resource and
    I think many ESL authors (in particular) would find it really helpful. As you say, it’s understandable how tenses get mixed up in the course of writing a long paper but setting out a plan from the start is a good tip to ensure consistency throughout. Interesting piece!

    • Nicola Everitt

      Oops – my response should make reference to your list of ‘suggested’ tenses! Note to self: don’t use the ipad for commenting!

      • Liz Brown

        Thanks for your comment Nicola, glad you found the post useful. Always tricky with phones and ipads – I’m often in trouble with mine.