Using tenses in academic writing

The way we use tense can differ between formal, academic English and spoken English. These differences reflect different writing styles. Read on for a quick guide of what tense to use where in your academic writing.

Simple tenses

Present

General truths or states

Two artefacts provide insight into ancient Hindu culture.

Habitual actions

The ISO standards are regularly reviewed.

Refer to the plot in novels, cinema and other stories

The ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son Hamlet to avenge his murder.

Cite an author or to refer to what an author says

Pauli’s exclusion principle states that no two electrons can have the same four quantum numbers.

Present your interpretations (opinions) and the interpretations of others

The “White Australia Policy”, which ended in 1973, represents one of the darkest periods of European settlement in Australia.

To describe diagrams and figures

Table 1 above demonstrates the success of cloning in various animal species.

Past

An action started and finished in the past

Hemingway drew on his experiences in World War I in constructing the character of Jake Barnet.

Dulay and Burt conducted their studies in the early seventies.

Methods and results of an investigation or experiment

Samples were centrifuged then strained.

Two subjects had a 1- to 2-log increase in skin test sensitivity to peanuts. 

Tip: Abstracts are written largely in past tense because they report on an investigation.

Future

Inform about a future event or predict a future event

The weather report says it will rain tomorrow.

This paper will focus on…

Tip: ‘Going to’ is considered informal and rarely used in academic writing.  Use such expressions such as 'is likely to' or 'is certain to' instead.

Present Perfect

Actions that started in the past and have not finished

She has lived in Melbourne for two years. (She still lives here).

When information established in the past is still relevant and current

A great deal of research has been conducted on the basic techniques of nuclear transfer, but few experiments have been carried out to discover the most appropriate age of the cytoplasm.

Past Perfect

A past event that clearly happened before another past event

The war had already ended when the troops arrived.

Progressive (continuous) tenses

Present

Actions that are temporary around the present time

Temperatures are rising as a result of global warming.

Tip: Several verbs rarely if ever use continuous tenses. This webpage on continuous tenses and meaning explains further.

  • It seems unlikely. (correct)
  • It is seeming unlikely. (incorrect)

Past

A continuous activity which provides background to a single event

Awareness of climate change was increasing when the Paris climate summit was held.

Passive voice

To put the focus of the sentence on the new or important information

Results were analysed using the two-sample t-test.

To remove the person who does the action, who may not be of interest

The president has been impeached.

Final tips

Keep tenses consistent within your text: the same context usually requires the same tense.

1. Tenses can change in a sentence if the context changes

Cells divided within 20 minutes and will continue to divide until frozen.

The sentence above talks about both the past and the future context of the cells, and this is perfectly acceptable.

2. When changing tenses in a paragraph, use ‘signalling words’ or time phrases

since then, currently, now, in the past / future

Tip: Read Swan's Practical English Usage for a comprehensive guide to grammar. Manchester University's Academic Phrasebank provides further information on the use of tense and language in academic writing.

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