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Using the correct verb tense in your journal paper can make your writing clearer, and more easily readable and understandable. However, it can be difficult to get right, even for native English speakers.

The use of different verb tenses can even vary between academic disciplines!

The 3 most frequently used tenses in academic writing

Don’t let this heading alarm you; once you understand the purpose of using different tenses and the reasons behind, you will be fine.

Let’s go through the 3 most frequently used tenses in academic writing with examples to explain when and why they are used.

When to use the simple present tense

Present tense tends to be used less frequently than past tense in academic writing, except in certain fields such as Business and Accounting.

It is usually used to:

  1. describe facts and general truths, mainly in introductions to present background information on the research topic;
    for example:“The Reynolds number provides a measure of…”

    The Reynolds number is an important dimensionless quantityin fluid mechanics used to help predict flow patterns in different fluid flow situations. It is regarded as a general truth in its corresponding field.

  2. describe the contents of the paper or refer to figures, tables or graphs;
    for example:

    “Section 3 presents the results”
    “Table 2 above demonstrates the success…”

 

When to use the simple past tense

The simple past tense is used to describe things that happened at a particular time in the past.

So, when reviewing the literature or previous studies, you might write:

“Smith and Olson (2009) reported that…”

“The subjects in the first group scored higher, on average…”


When to use the present perfect tense

The present perfect tense is used to:

  1. describe events that are linked to the present or are continuing;
    for example:“Mobile phone use has increased over the past decade”

  2. describe general findings when emphasising what has been done instead of what is known to be true;
    for example:“Researchers have used this material to manufacture…”

 

These are the main tenses that you will use. You may use the examples as general guidelines. There are two other points to which you will need to pay attention when writing.

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Important point to note 1: changing the tense can change the meaning.

Note the difference between a statement in the past tense and the same statement in the present tense:

“The temperature increased linearly over time” refers to a specific experiment, whereas

“The temperature increases linearly over time” generalises the observation, suggesting that the temperature always increases linearly over time in such circumstances.

 

Important point to note 2: combining past and present tense in a statement is possible.

In complex sentences, you may have to combine present and past tenses.

For example:

“In 1905, Albert Einstein postulated that the speed of light is constant”

Here, postulated refers to something that happened in the past and is therefore in the past tense, whereas is expresses a general truth and is in the present tense.

 

Last but not least

Language usage in different fields can vary, so be sure to check how other papers in your field of study or target journal are written.


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