How to Use Verb Tenses in Academic Writing

No need to be tense: Download our editor's simple guide to the use of tenses in academic writing.

Updated on September 1, 2022

researcher considering verb tenses in academic writing

The use of tenses in academic writing is one of the most common questions we are asked in our workshops and training. As we will discuss, there are many different tenses in English:

  • Simple past
  • Simple present
  • Simple future
  • Perfect past
  • Perfect present
  • Perfect future

Totally confusing.

Make your results section the focus of your paper. Build your paper out from the results.

Don't over complicate your writing! Keep your readers in mind.

We don't write papers for our mothers. or We don't write papers to give away as Christmas presents. We write academic articles for people to read, use, and cite. This is how you drive up your citation rate, garner influence in your field, and enhance your institutional ranking and reputation.

Keep your readers in mind when writing papers. Make sure that their experience is enjoyable and easy: Most of the readers of academic papers are not native English speakers!

For this reason, most of your paper should be written in the SIMPLE present tense.

But, which tense makes sense?

English verb tense use can be extremely confusing. Present perfect. Present simple? What's the difference?

You might have taken lessons in English grammar, but, again, one of the key messages of this guide is: Remember your readers.

Use present simple for most of your manuscript

Users of your papers are experiencing your work in real time. They are reading in the moment. This means that verb use in academic writing can actually be quite simple.

Use simple present for most of your paper, especially in the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Make your results the focus of your manuscript: Use simple present as the main tense.

Use simple past in the methods section

The methods section? Well, the methods happened in the past. Simple past works well for that part. Keep it simple.

example of how to use verb tense in academic writing

When will I use the other tenses?

Your use of future tense will be limited, but it could appear towards the end of the discussion section when you mention the ‘future' work, ‘future' directions, and other areas of thought leadership.

Final thoughts: How do other authors determine the correct tense?

Check out a handful of papers in your own field that have appeared recently in high impact factor journals that you think are well-written and easy to read. Don't copy. Base your style on the work of others:

  • How are the papers that you find easy to read and follow written?
  • Do they use the first person active tense? (I bet they do).

This also works well for developing your figures and tables:

  • How do other successful authors put these together in their papers?
  • What sorts of styles, softwares, colors, and formatting do they use?

Click here to download our FREE guide to the correct use of tenses in academic writing.

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