Common Tenses Used in Academic Writing

Although the university-level study’s nature has changed in recent years, not least because of technology, one element has remained constant, guaranteeing students’ success with a mastery of it: academic writing. Academic writing becomes an essential skill that sets students up for success when it comes to higher education. Having many years of experience working with international students and college admission officers in our College Compass program, we realize the value of academic, assignment and essay writing skills to prepare students for top colleges.

>> Check on this article to have a great grasp on academic writing and why it is so critical

Now, the question is, how can I make my writing sound more academic and professional?

Let’s take a look at these two below sentences:

1. He explains the author’s intention and purpose in the article.

2. He is explaining the author’s intention and purpose in the article.

Both of the sentences above are grammatically correct. However, the first sentence’s tense (present simple) is more common for academic writing than the tense in the second sentence (present progressive).

This article starts with the most essential element of writing – tenses – and will show you three common verb tenses and how to use them effectively in your own academic writing.


What are “tenses”?

“Tense” refers to the time, completeness and continuance of a state or action (verb) in reference to when the sentence is said or written. In English, the verb form changes to indicate the tense.

For example:

  • The population of Vietnam is around 97 million people in 2021.

  • The population of Vietnam was around 87 million people in 2010.

There are three main tenses: past, present, and future.  In English, each of these tenses can take four main aspects: simple, perfect, continuous (also known as progressive), and perfect continuous.  The perfect aspect is formed using the verb to have, while the continuous aspect is formed using the verb to be.

According to corpus research, in academic writing, the most commonly used tenses are the simple present, the simple past, and the present perfect (Biber et al., 1999; Caplan, 2012).  These three tenses make up 98% of the tensed verbs used in academic writing.  The most common tense is present simple, followed by past simple and present perfect.  These tenses can be used both in passive and active voice.

So what are they in specific, and when to use each of them in certain scenarios? Look at their main functions in academic writing below.

1. The Present Simple Tense

Present simple is the most common tense in academic writing. It is usually considered the “default” unless there is a certain reason to choose another tense (e.g., a sentence contains a past time marker).

Present simple tense indicates that the statement is generally true in the past, present, and future.

According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary, there are two main situations where you always need to use the present tense.

i) Describing facts, generalizations, and explanations

  • Facts that are always true do not need to be located in a specific time, so they are stated in the present simple. You might state these types of facts when giving background information in the introduction of your writing.

    • Example: The Eiffel Tower is in Paris.

  • Similarly, theories and generalizations based on facts are expressed in the present simple.

    • Example: Average income differs by race and gender.

  • Explanations of terms, theories, and ideas should also be written in the present simple.

    • Example: According to QS World University Rankings® 2021, Harvard is the best university in the world.

ii) Describing the content of a text

  • Things that happen within the space of a text should be treated similarly to facts and generalizations.  This applies to fictional narratives in books, films, plays, etc.  Use the present simple to describe your main focus’s events or actions; other tenses can be used to mark different times within the text itself.

    • Example: In the first novel, Harry learns he is a wizard and travels to Hogwarts for the first time, finally escaping the constraints of the family that raised him.

  • When discussing and analyzing nonfiction, similarly, use the present simple to describe what the author does within the pages of the text (argues, explains, demonstrates, etc.).

    • Example: In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari foresees a future in which humans live in such an optimized world, they become useless, and their lives lose all meaning.

  • This rule also applies when you are describing what you do in your text. When summarizing the research in your abstract, describing your objectives, or giving an overview of the dissertation structure in your introduction, the present simple is the best choice of tense.

    • Example: This research aims to synthesize the two theories.

2. The Past Simple Tense

Generally, the past simple should be used to describe completed actions and events, including steps in the research process and historical background information.  Generally, past simple is used to refer to actions completed in the past. Some specific functions this tense has in academic writing include:

i)  Describing the methods and data of your completed experiment or research steps

  • Whether you are referring to your research or someone else’s, use the past simple to report specific steps in the research process that have been completed.

    • Example: We transcribed and coded the interviews before analyzing the results.

  • The past simple is also the most appropriate choice for reporting the results of your research.

    • Example: We found a positive correlation between the variables, but it was not as strong as we hypothesized.

ii) Describing historical events

  • Background information about events that took place in the past should also be described in the past simple tense.

    • Example: Donald Trump’s election in 2016 contradicted the predictions of commentators.

3. The Present Perfect Tense

Present perfect is usually used when referring to past research that took place over an unspecified time period or previous whose findings are relevant today.  You can also use it to create a connection between past research findings and your work.  More specifically, this tense might have the following functions:

i) Summarizing previous work

  • When summarizing a whole body of research or describing the history of an ongoing debate, use the present perfect.

    • Example: Many researchers have investigated the effects of poverty on health.

ii) Emphasizing the present relevance of previous work

  • When describing past research outcomes with verbs like find, discover or demonstrate, you can use either the past simple or the present perfect.  The present perfect is a good choice to emphasize the continuing relevance of a piece of research and its consequences for your work. It implies that the current study will build on, follow from, or respond to what previous researchers have done.

    • Example: Smith (2015) has found that younger drivers are involved in more traffic accidents than older drivers, but more research is required to make effective policy recommendations.

Please note that the common mistake is to use the present continuous instead of the simple present.  In short, if there is not a clear reason to use present continuous, use present simple.

There are some times where it is appropriate to switch tense within a paragraph or sentence. However, make sure you have to have a good reason for it. (e.g., a shift in time marked by an adverb or prepositional phrase (e.g., since, in 2013, until) or when you move from general statements to specific examples from research.

When to use other tenses

While the above are the most commonly used tenses in academic writing,  although not as common, there are many cases where you’ll use other tenses to make distinctions between times.  For example, when expressing strong predictions about the future, the future simple tense is used, or when describing events that change at the time of writing, the present progressive is used.  It’s often a better choice to use other verbs like expect, predict, and assume to make more cautious statements.

Example: 

  • There will be a strong positive correlation.
  • We expect to find a strong positive correlation.
  • H1 predicts a strong positive correlation.

Want to learn more about Academic Writing?

Writing is at the very heart of academic life, and academic English determines a student’s potential for success.  That’s why at Everest, we teach English Language Arts, a bridge to take students from basic conversational English to academic English. Our class strongly focuses on comprehensive reading and writing skills – where students learn how to describe and comprehend complex ideas, process higher-order thinking, and understand abstract concepts. Through the use of academic language, students read, write, listen, and speak about the topics they learn at school.

We also integrate social studies into language arts to develop a solid general knowledge and vocabulary students need to become successful readers and writers in the future. 

>> Learn more about our English Language Art program at

https://e2.com.vn/programs/english-language-arts/  

Reference:

https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/verbtenses#:~:text=According%20to%20corpus%20research%2C%20in,1999%3B%20Caplan%2C%202012

https://www.scribbr.com/language-rules/tenses/ 

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