Don’t get tense about tenses

Don’t get tense about tenses

One of the issues I’ve noticed people struggle with when writing their PhD thesis, or other academic assignments, is how to write tenses correctly. They will often write about other peoples’ research in the past tense, with statements like ‘Bridge (2014) suggested that…’. You may have been told that academic writing is always in the present tense, and this is true a lot of the time, but there are really three different tenses that you can choose from- and an easy way to work out which one to use.

The present tense – in academic writing the focus is on ideas. Most of the time in the academic world ideas are considered timeless, that is, they belong to the ever-present now, no matter when the article or book they came from was written. The academic process is about scholarly debate – presenting ideas, discussing them, exploring them, critiquing them and adding to or developing them. This debate is considered to be ongoing- as though a group of scholars sit in a room outside time somewhere, constantly debating. So if you are presenting others’ ideas, you use the present tense: ‘Walker (2002) argues that such an outcome is inevitable.’ The same goes for your ideas- after all, with any luck you will join the hallowed debate yourself. You would say ‘I conclude that the reasons are complex…’ or ‘The data points to three conclusions’, for example.

The past tense – this is used when you are writing about things that are clearly located in the past- usually in the form of activities that have now finished or ideas that are no longer current. You would say ‘Participants were contacted via Facebook’, for example. This is an action that occurred at a particular time and is completed now.  The past tense can also be used for ideas- but ONLY when the thinking about that idea or theory has moved on to something different. For example, you would say ‘I concluded that this was due to a lack of information, but further investigation revealed there were other factors at play.’ In this case it would work to add in ‘at the time’ to the sentence (‘I concluded at the time that…’) since the conclusion (or idea) related to a specific time in the past. The same can be true of writing about other scholars – if what you are saying relates to a specific time, the past tense is correct. For example, you would say ‘Bowlby’s theory of attachment broke new ground’, because you are talking about what happened when the theory appeared, which is clearly in the past.

The future tense – finally, there can be a place for the present tense in academic writing – this relates to structuring your report or thesis. It is good practice to have ‘signposts’.that tell the reader where you have been and where you are going next, usually at the beginning and conclusion of chapters and sections. When you are telling the reader what is coming up, the future tense can be used: ‘In Chapter One I will discuss the main theories informing my work’, ‘In the next section I will explore participants’ responses to the research question’ and so on.

However, it is VERY important to make it clear you are referring to ‘this thesis/text/document’, as in ‘this thesis will present an analysis…’, ‘this chapter will discuss…’. Don’t use the future tense when referring to your research as a whole because then your thesis sounds more like a research proposal than like a research write-up. In these instances the future tense can be used because the reader hasn’t read that part of the thesis yet. If this seems like a layer of complication, and you are worried about getting your future and present tenses mixed up in your thesis, in most cases it is also okay to just stick with the present tense when writing about your thesis- ‘this thesis presents an analysis’ works just as well as ‘this thesis will present’.

The one referencing system that works differently to all of this is APA, which can use either past tense (‘Smith shows’) or present perfect (‘Smith has shown’) for the literature review but not the straight present tense (‘Smith shows’). Refer to the APA style guide for more details.

So if you are unsure, ask yourself if the thing you are writing about happened in the past and is finished now (whether it is research or activities that have been completed or ideas that someone no longer holds). If the answer is yes, use the past tense. Otherwise, present tense is usually the most appropriate approach.

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