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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 used:

  1. 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.

  2. To make general statements, conclusions, or interpretations about previous research or data, focusing on what is known now.

    “The data suggest…”
    “The research shows…”

  3. 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).

  4. To introduce evidence or support.

    “There is evidence that…”

  5. To give a sense of immediacy to past events (called “the narrative present” or “the literary present”).

    “So I’m walking through the park yesterday, and I hear all of this loud music and yelling. Turns out, there’s a free concert!”
    “Shakespeare captures human nature so accurately.”

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. Notice how the verb tense changes as the function changes in this example.

    “…customers obviously want to be treated at least as well on fishing vessels as they are by other recreation businesses. [General claim using simple present] De Young (1987) found the quality of service to be more important than catching fish in attracting repeat customers. [Specific claim from a previous study using simple past] (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 acts as a “bridge” tense by connecting some past event or state to the present moment. It implies that whatever is being referred to in the past is still true and relevant today.

  1. Introduce a general area of research.

    “There have been several investigations into…”
    “Educators have always been interested in student learning.”

  2. To introduce contradictory 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)

Special notes

Can I change tenses?

Yes. English is a language that uses many verb tenses at the same time. The key is choosing the verb tense that is appropriate for what you’re trying to convey.

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

What’s the difference between present simple and past simple for reporting research results?

  • Past simple limits your claims to the results of your own study. E.g., “Our study found that teenagers were moody.” (In this study, teenagers were moody.)
  • Present simple elevates your claim to a generalization. E.g., “Our study found that teenagers are moody.” (Teenagers are always moody.)

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. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. New York: Longman.

Hawes, Thomas, and Sarah Thomas. 1997. “Tense Choices in Citations.” Research into the Teaching of English 31 (3): 393-414.

Hinkel, Eli. 2004. Teaching Academic ESL Writing: Practical Techniques in Vocabulary and Grammar. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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

Swales, John, and Christine B. Feak. 2004. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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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