Using tenses in academic writing

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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 the verb used ‘sounds right’. I’ve proofread a vast number of dissertations over the years and ‘fixing’ verb agreement is one of the most common edits that I perform. Another issue is the use of different styles or tenses across the sections of a fairly standard format research paper or dissertation. 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. Consistency is the key to producing a paper that is easy and enjoyable to read.

Check whether there are rules for your institution

Across the various academic institutions and bodies there does not seem to be any general consensus on the tenses to be used for each section of a dissertation or thesis. 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. However, 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.

Research proposals

As you are outlining research that will be performed in the future, and how you plan to set about the study then the future tense is the most appropriate. I generally only edit a research proposal to the future tense; for all other papers and dissertations, where the research is complete I use present or past tense. So, for your research proposal use terms like “this research will focus on…” or “this research will use the mixed-methods approach …”. And be careful if you copy and paste part of your research proposal to form the basis of your dissertation when you come to write it up – don’t forget to change the tenses to show that the study has now been completed.

Writing up completed research

Once your study is complete you’re likely to need to write up the results in a research paper, or a longer dissertation or thesis. Here, you have a choice of either using the past tense, which I personally think is the easiest, or present tense in parts. I tend to reserve future tense, if it is used at all, for the final ‘future research’ section. In a long work, usually made up of similar sections, I tend to edit according to the following outline.

Opening sections

For the opening Abstract use the past tense: ‘this research focused on…’. This is a summary of the entire dissertation; the research is complete and therefore past tense is appropriate. For the Introduction, you can use either present tense: ‘this research focuses on…’ OR past tense: ‘this research focused on…’. The next section is usually a Literature review, which I feel reads best in the past: ‘Bloggs (2005) stated that…’, although some people prefer the present ‘Bloggs states that …’. Whichever you choose, be consistent. I prefer past as Bloggs’ research is complete, long before your own.

The heart of the dissertation

When it comes to the Methodology, Results, Discussion and Conclusion chapters I find that the past tense works best. The methodology describes how you did the research so use past tense: ‘This research used semi-structured interviews…’. Again, for Results use past tense for results obtained: ‘The research found that…’. But, use present tense for figures and tables: ‘Figure one shows the distribution of samples…’ because you are referring to something displayed in the text, so the reader is looking at it now.

Summing up

In the Discussion chapter use 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…’ For the Conclusion/future direction chapters, 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…’.