Tense Use in Academic Writing: Past, Present and Future
  • 4-minute read
  • 2nd December 2016

Tense Use in Academic Writing: Past, Present and Future

While the dreary constraints of physical reality mean that we’re stuck in the present for all practical purposes, in speech or writing we can skip from past to present to future at will.

To do this, you’ll need to master the past, present and future tense. These grammatical tenses are useful in all kinds of writing, but here we’ll focus on their use in academic work.

What is Grammatical Tense?

Before anything else, we need to quickly clarify what we mean by “grammatical tense.”

The main thing you need to know is that the form of the verb in a sentence changes depending on when the action described occurs.

As such, by modifying a sentence to adjust the tense, we can change its meaning:

Present Tense: Alfred burns the cakes.

Past Tense: Alfred burned the cakes.

Future Tense: Alfred will burn the cakes.

In the first example, the present tense verb “burns” suggests that it’s happening now. The past tense verb “burned”, however, shows that it has already happened. And by adding the helping verb “will,” we can instead suggest that the action is going to happen in the future.

Looks like the dog is going to have them anyway.
Looks like the dog will eat them anyway.

The examples above are the simple forms of each of these tenses. There are many variations on these, however, so it’s worth checking how each form differs in practice.

The Past Tense in Academic Writing

In an academic paper, you could use the past tense to show that an idea is not widely accepted any more. In the following, for instance, the past tense “claimed” and “has since been disputed” both signal that the study no longer applies:

Cook and Moore (1964) originally claimed that profane language is amusing, although this has since been disputed by many experts.

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Pete and Dud: Pioneering researchers in the profane.
Pete and Dud: Pioneering researchers in the profane.

The past tense is also commonly used in academic writing when describing the methods used in an experiment that has already been conducted:

The sample was tested using several techniques.

Some colleges have specific instructions for how a methodology chapter should be written, though, so make sure to check for rules about tense use in your style guide.

The Present Tense in Academic Writing

The present tense is dominant in most forms of academic work, since it applies when writing about current events or states of being. This includes describing:

  • Existing facts and theories (e.g., “Profane language is common among young people…”)
  • The findings of a study (e.g., “The results demonstrate that…”)
  • The opinions or claims of other thinkers (e.g., “Cook and Moore argue that…”)

The present tense is usually correct even when describing a study that happened in the past, as long as the conclusions are still relevant in the present.

The Future Tense in Academic Writing

The future tense is less common in academic writing, but it still has a couple of important roles. One is in research proposals, since you’ll need to describe your research aims, predictions about results, and the methods you intend to use:

This study will examine the role of profane language in comedy. We predict that profane language will be considered hilarious by the majority of respondents.

The future tense is also useful when recommending fresh avenues of research or suggesting how the results of a study could be applied:

Our study suggests that further research should be conducted into the increasing use of profane language in everyday life.

The crucial thing is that the future tense is used when describing something that hasn’t yet happened or that is expected to occur in the future.

Think of it as like academic fortune telling. Or don't. (Photo: David Shankbone/flickr)
Think of it as academic fortune telling. Or don’t.
(Photo: David Shankbone)

Comments (2)
Suzanne
29th August 2020 at 17:50
Can your write with present then future or should you keep it in the present. For example If my dog is given something that isn't food, he will turn abruptly away. Main sentence -Future or If my dog is given something that isn't food, he turns abruptly away. Main sentence - present Thank you.
    Proofed
    31st August 2020 at 12:36
    Hi, Suzanne. Either of those would be fine depending on what you're trying to say. The first combines the simple present and simple future, which is a common form of conditional sentence used for describing a likely outcome of a possible or real situation (e.g., "If you stay up all night, you will feel tired tomorrow"). The second uses the simple present in both clauses, which typically denotes a general truth or inevitable outcome (e.g., "If you go out in the rain, you get wet"). There are other conditional forms, too, which often mix other tenses. So to answer your question, yes, you can mix verb tenses in conditional sentences, but the correct tenses will depend on the situation and the type of conditional you're using.

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