Most Common Verb Tenses in Academic Writing
According to corpus research, in academic writing, the three tenses used the most often are the simple present, the simple past, and the present perfect (Biber et al., 1999; Caplan, 2012). The next most common tense for capstone writers is the future; the doctoral study/dissertation proposal at Walden is written in this tense for a study that will be conducted in the future. The blog post on What Verb Tenses Do You Need to Master for Academic Writing addresses these ideas as well.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of written and spoken English. Pearson. https://doi.org/10.1162/089120101300346831
Caplan, N. A. (2012). Grammar choices for graduate and professional writers. University of Michigan Press.
Simple present: Use the simple present to describe a general truth or a habitual action. This tense indicates that the statement is generally true in the past, present, and future.
- Example: Research methods include qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods.
Simple past: Use the simple past tense to describe a completed action that took place at a specific point in the past (e.g., last year, 1 hour ago, last Sunday). In this example, the specific point of time in the past is 1998.
- Example: Zimbardo (1998) researched many aspects of social psychology.
Present perfect: Use the present perfect to indicate an action that occurred at a nonspecific time in the past. This action has relevance in the present. The present perfect is also sometimes used to introduce background information in a paragraph. After the first sentence, the tense shifts to the simple past.
- Example: Numerous researchers have used this method.
- Example: Many researchers have studied how small business owners can be successful beyond the initial few years in business. They found common themes among small business owners.
Future: Use the future to describe an action that will take place at a particular point in the future (at Walden, this is used especially when writing a proposal for a doctoral capstone study).
- Example: I will conduct semistructured interviews.
Keep in mind that verb tenses should be adjusted after the proposal after the research has been completed. See Verb Tense Considerations: Proposal to Final Study farther down on this page and this blog post about Revising the Proposal for the Final Capstone Document for more information.
APA Style Guidelines on Verb Tense
APA calls for consistency and accuracy in verb tense usage. In other words, avoid unnecessary shifts in verb tense within a paragraph or in adjacent paragraphs to help ensure smooth expression.
- Use the past tense (e.g., researchers presented) or the present perfect (e.g., researchers have presented) for the literature review and the description of the procedure if discussing past events.
- Use the past tense to describe the results (e.g., test scores improved significantly).
- Use the present tense to discuss implications of the results and present conclusions (e.g., the results of the study show…).
Refer to the work of another researcher in the past.
- Patterson (2017) presented, found, stated, discovered…
However, there can be a shift to the present tense if the research findings still hold true:
- King (2016) found that revising a document three times improves the final grade.
- Smith (2018) discovered that the treatment is effective.
Verb Tense Guidelines When Referring to the Document Itself
To preview what is coming in the document or to explain what is happening at that moment in the document, use the present or future tense:
- In this study, I will describe…
- In this study, I describe…
- In the next chapter, I will discuss…
- In the next chapter, I discuss…
To refer back to information already covered, such as summaries of discussions that have already taken place or conclusions to chapters/sections, use the past tense:
- Chapter 1 included my original discussion of the research questions.
- In summary, in this section, I presented information on…
Simple Past Versus the Present Perfect
Rules for the use of the present perfect differ slightly in British and American English. Researchers have also found that among American English writers, sometimes individual preferences dictate whether the simple past or the present perfect is used. In other words, one American English writer may choose the simple past in a place where another American English writer may choose the present perfect.
Keep in mind, however, that the simple past is used for a completed action. It often is used with signal words such as yesterday, last week, 1 year ago, or in 2015 to indicate the specific time in the past when the action took place.
- I collected data in 2017.
- All prospective participants signed an informed consent form in a 1-week period before data collection began.
The present perfect focuses more on an action that occurred without focusing on the specific time it happened. Note that the specific time is not given, just that the action has occurred.
- I have examined several possible research designs.
The present perfect focuses more on the result of the action.
- The panel of experts has completed the instrument validation.
The present perfect is often used with signal words such as since, already, just, until now, (not) yet, so far, ever, lately, or recently.
- I have already examined several possible research designs.
- The panel of experts has recently completed the instrument validation.
- Researchers have used this method since it was developed.
Also see the blog post on Choosing the Present Perfect Tense in Academic Writing for more information and examples.
Verb Tense Considerations: Proposal to Final Study
Unlike the proposal, where the writer describes a study not yet conducted, the final study is a report of what actually happened in the research or project study process, so the writer must revise the relevant portions of the proposal accordingly when incorporating them into the final capstone document. One essential step is to determine which verbs require a change in tense for logical and accurate reporting of the completed study. Although many sentences will shift from future to past tense, this shift is not appropriate in all cases. These guidelines address specific considerations for deciding where a shift in tense is necessary during this revision process.
Future tense verbs that need to shift to past tense in the final study include those representing actions, decisions, or processes that happened after approval of the proposal, such as in the following examples:
Proposal: In this study, I will employ face-to-face interviews with key participants, reflexive notes, and a review of literature…
Final study: In this study, I employed face-to-face interviews with key participants, reflexive notes, and a review of literature…
Proposal: The sample will consist of 10 to 20 graduate students who have completed at least three graduate courses in the past year.
Final study: The sample consisted of 12 graduate students who had completed* at least three graduate courses in the past year.
* Note the related verb tense shift from present perfect to past perfect in the second example.
Not all verbs require a shift in tense. Here are a few such cases:
- When the writer is previewing upcoming content in the document, present or future tense is still correct in the final study. For example,
- In this chapter, I describe… (or will describe…)
- NOT: In this chapter, I described…
- Although writers may revise the wording of the implications of their study (e.g., social change implications), the verb tense should not shift. In both proposal and final study, such statements indicate future possibilities through modal verbs such as may, could, or can. For example,
- This study’s findings could lead to positive social change by…
- The results of this study may serve to increase awareness of…
- Statements referring to other events, circumstances, or actions occurring at some future date relative to the completed study (e.g., projections or recommendations) remain in future tense. For example,
- Researchers have argued that the continued loss of experienced nurses will have negative effects on...
- As technology advances, future researchers will want to focus on…
- Likewise, in a project study, implementation or dissemination of the project may not occur until after publication, so future tense makes sense in the final study in statements such as these:
- This professional development project will address the problem of…
- This systematic review will provide support for evidence-based best practices for…
Strategy for revising verb tense from proposal to final study:
- Use Ctrl+F (or Command+F on a Mac) or click the Find button under the Home tab to search for occurrences of the word will in the document.
- On a case-by-case basis, examine each statement containing will to determine whether revision is needed. Avoid using Replace All in the Find and Replace menu because, as noted above, not all uses of future tense refer to the proposal itself.
- Check the context in which the word will occurs to see if other revisions are warranted nearby.
Keep in mind that, although this strategy can make finding and revising proposal-specific language a bit easier, there is no substitute for careful, systematic proofreading of the document.
Final note and related resources:
Inadequate revision of verb tense and other proposal-specific language is among the Top 10 Reasons for Delays at the F&S Review, so taking the time for this process well before that stage is important.
Summary of English Verb Tenses
The 12 main tenses:
- Simple present: She writes every day.
- Present progressive: She is writing right now.
- Simple past: She wrote last night.
- Past progressive: She was writing when he called.
- Simple future: She will write tomorrow.
- Future progressive: She will be writing when you arrive.
- Present perfect: She has written Chapter 1.
- Present perfect progressive: She has been writing for 2 hours.
- Past perfect: She had written Chapter 3 before she started Chapter 4.
- Past perfect progressive: She had been writing for 2 hours before her friends arrived.
- Future perfect: She will have written Chapter 4 before she writes Chapter 5.
- Future perfect progressive: She will have been writing for 2 hours by the time her friends come over.
Zero conditional (general truths/general habits).
- Example: If I have time, I write every day.
First conditional (possible or likely things in the future).
- Example: If I have time, I will write every day.
Second conditional (impossible things in the present/unlikely in the future).
- Example: If I had time, I would write every day.
Third conditional (things that did not happen in the past and their imaginary results)
- Example: If I had had time, I would have written every day.
Subjunctive: This form is sometimes used in that-clauses that are the object of certain verbs or follow certain adjectives. The form of the subjective is the simple form of the verb. It is the same for all persons and number.
- Example: I recommend that future researchers include other populations in their studies.
- Example: It is important that staff at the study site establish criteria for implementing study findings.