Tenses are an important feature of writing and speaking in English. Tenses indicate the time of an event, i.e., when something takes place. Correct tense use is critical in academic writing. Tense should be consistent or your reader will get confused.
In practice, the present simple, past and future are most often used, with the present perfect used in “weak” author in-text citations.
There are 12 tenses:
- Present simple: This is used to discuss something true or factual, or to generalise about some observation, e.g.,
- I play the guitar;
- Smith is an academic.
- Past simple: This is used to describe a completed action, e.g.,
- I played the guitar [in the past – I am not playing right now];
- Smith was an academic [before his current occupation].
- Future simple: This is used to describe an action one intends to do in the future, e.g.,
- I will play guitar [given the opportunity to do so];
- Smith will be an academic [given the opportunity to be one].
The perfect tense is used to indicate a “perfected” or completed action or event using the verb “have/had” (along with helping verbs).
- Present perfect: This is like the present simple with the addition of the verb ‘to have’, carrying the implication that a completed action or event continues up until now, e.g.,
- I have played guitar in a band [and still could];
- Smith and Jones have published many papers [and could publish more].
- Past perfect: This is like the past simple with the addition of ‘to have’ carrying the implication that one completed past event occurred before another completed past event, e.g.,
- I had played guitar in a band long before the band became famous;
- Smith and Jones had published papers before they both retired.
- Future perfect: This is like the future simple with the addition of ‘to have’ carrying the implication of a connection between two completed events in the future, e.g.,
- I will have to play guitar in a band before I become famous [in the future];
- Smith and Jones will have to publish papers before being promoted [in the future].
The continuous tense is focussed on an ongoing action in progress at a determinate or indeterminate time.
- Present continuous: This is used to describe something happening in the present that continues into the future [am/are + ing form of verb] e.g.,
- I am playing guitar [right now!];
- Smith and Jones are publishing papers [and will continue to do so].
- Interest rates are rising around the world.
- Past continuous: This is used to describe something that started or happened in the past and continued until a particular, specified time in the past [was/were + ing form of verb] e.g.,
- I was playing guitar in a band when the ‘phone rang;
- Smith and Jones were publishing papers when they were made redundant from their jobs.
- The share prices were rising around the world when I invested my money.
- Future continuous: This is used when describing something in the unspecified future that is in progress at another specified time in the future [will + be + ing form of verb] e.g.,
- I will be playing guitar when the ‘phone rings;
- Smith and Jones will be publishing papers until they retire from their jobs.
- I will be investing in the share market tomorrow.
- Present perfect continuous: This is used to describe something that started at some unspecified time in the past and which has continued to the unspecified time in the present [has/have + been + ing form of verb]. It is also used when we are interested in incomplete outcomes or results*, e.g.,
- I have been playing guitar for a long time [=and I am getting much better at it];
- Smith and Jones have been publishing papers for many years [= and are still doing so];
- *He has been waiting for an opportunity to take over the company [= and still hasn’t].
- Past perfect continuous: This is used to describe an unspecified past event which continued until or just before another unspecified past event [had been + ing form of verb] e.g.,
- I had been playing guitar for about ten years;
- Smith and Jones had been publishing papers for decades when they called an end to their partnership;
- I had been working for years in the same job when head-hunted by another company.
- Future perfect continuous: This is used to describe something in the unspecified future that will continue until being finished at an unspecified future time [will have been + ing form of verb] e.g.,
- I will have been playing guitar for many years before I perform on stage.
- Smith and Jones will have been publishing papers for many decades before they get promoted.
- I will have been waiting for an hour before being considered for the job.
Present tense demonstrates that what is being written about is occurring in the present time. Present tense uses the ‘-s’ form of the verb. It is used in academic writing when outlining evidence or analysing things.
- Recent research shows that some students develop strong immunity during their undergraduate years. Leading research by Ernie Coli indicates the cause to be a high intake of pancakes containing bacteria (2014).
Past tense demonstrates that what is being written about has already occurred. It uses words with ‘-ed’ verb endings. When you are reporting on things in academic writing, such as research results or surveys, e.g., a Methodology section of a report, you are expected to use past tense. For example:
- Researchers had no trouble finding hungry students to participate in research into pancake consumption. Numerous studies found consistent results.
Future tense provides a prediction, i.e., something that will occur. Future tense uses ‘will’ and ‘-ing’ forms of verbs. This is often used in the Discussion section of a paper.
- In spite of health warnings, researchers conclude that students will continue to eat pancakes containing bacteria. Ongoing health issues such as diabetes and heart disease will be prevalent in these people.
Once you start using one tense, you should stick with it unless there is a clear and obvious reason for it to change.
Convert the following examples of present tense to past tense by removing and/or changing some words.
1. Researchers are undertaking a series of interviews with affected students to determine the link between the quantity of pancakes eaten and the severity of symptoms.
2. So many students are signing up to be part of the research that researchers are keeping a waiting list.
3. Researchers are convinced that students want to participate to get free food.
1. Researchers undertook a series of interviews with affected students to determine the link between the quantity of pancakes eaten and the severity of symptoms.
2. So many students signed up to be part of the research that researchers kept a waiting list.
3. Researchers were convinced that students wanted to participate to get free food.
For a downloadable version of the tenses given above, see Tenses.
For a helpsheet detailing the use of tenses in scientific writing, see Tenses in the Sciences.