What this handout is about

The present simple, past simple, and present perfect verb tenses account for approximately 80% of verb tense use in academic writing. This handout will help you understand how to use these three verb tenses in your own academic writing.

Click here for a color-coded illustration of changing verb tenses in academic writing.

Present simple tense

The present simple tense is the basic tense of most academic writing. Use this as your first choice unless you have a good reason to use another tense.
Specifically, the present simple is used:

  • To “frame” your paper. In your introduction, the present simple tense describes what we already know about the topic; in the conclusion, it says what we now know about the topic and what further research is still needed.
  • To make general statements, conclusions, or interpretations about previous research or data, focusing on what is known now (The data suggest… The research shows…).
  • To cite a previous study or finding without mentioning the researcher in the sentence:
      “The dinoflagellate’s TFVCs require an unidentified substance in fresh fish excreta” (Penrose and Katz, 330).
  • To introduce evidence or support:
      “There is evidence that…”
  • To show strong agreement with a conclusion or theory from a previous paper (“Smith suggests that”). However, note that the present simple is not used to show agreement with specific findings or data (use the past simple).

Past simple tense

Past simple tense is used for two main functions in most academic fields:

1. To introduce other people’s research into your text when you are describing a specific study, usually carried out by named researcher. The research often provides an example that supports a general statement or a finding in your research.

    …customers obviously want to be treated at least as well on fishing vessels as they are by other recreation businesses. [General claim]
    De Young (1987) found the quality of service to be more important than catching fish in attracting repeat customers. [Specific supporting evidence] (Marine Science)

2. To describe the methods and data of your completed experiment.

    We conducted a secondary data analysis… (Public Health)
    Descriptional statistical tests and t-student test were used for statistical analysis. (Medicine)
    The control group of students took the course previously… (Education)

Present perfect tense

The present perfect is mostly used for referring to previous research in the field or to your own previous findings. Since the present perfect is a present tense, it implies that the result is still true and relevant today.

The subject of active present perfect verbs is often general: “Researchers have found,” “Studies have suggested.” The present simple could also be used here, but the present perfect focuses more on what has been done than on what is known to be true now (present simple).

In the following example, there are two opposite findings, so neither is the accepted state of knowledge:

    Some studies have shown that girls have significantly higher fears than boys after trauma (Pfefferbaum et al., 1999; Pine &; Cohen, 2002; Shaw, 2003). Other studies have found no gender differences (Rahav and Ronen, 1994). (Psychology)

A new topic can be introduced with this structure:

    There have been several investigations into…

The present perfect forms a connection between the past (previous research) and the present (your study). So, you say what has been found and then how you will contribute to the field. This is also useful when you want to point out a gap in the existing research.

    More recently, advances have been made using computational hydrodynamics to study the evolution of SNRs in multidimensions… (citation)… [previous research]
    However, a similar problem exists in the study of SNR dynamics. [gap] (Astrophysics)

The passive voice is common in the present perfect tense to describe previous findings without referring directly to the original paper: “…has been studied; it has been observed that…” You should usually provide citations in parentheses or a footnote. The passive voice allows you to move the subject of your research into a place in the sentence where it will have more focus.

You can also use the present perfect tense to tell the history of your idea (what “has created” it?), describe the results of your research (“we have developed a new…”), or to draw conclusions (“this has led us to conclude that…”).

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Biber, Douglas et al. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman, 1999.

Hawes, Thomas, and Sarah Thomas. “Tense Choices in Citations.” Research into the Teaching of English, 31 (1997): 393-414.

Hinkel, Eli. Teaching Academic ESL Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004.

Penrose, Ann, and Steven Katz. Writing in the Sciences: Exploring the Conventions of Scientific Discourse. 2nd ed. Pearson Longman, 2004.

Swales, John, and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. 2nd ed. U of Michigan P, 2004.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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