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.
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: The hospital admits patients whether or not they have proof of insurance.
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 the example below, 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 the 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 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 (see APA 7, Section 4.12 and Table 4.1). 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…).
When explaining what an author or researcher wrote or did, use the past tense.
- Patterson (2012) presented, found, stated, discovered…
However, there can be a shift to the present tense if the research findings still hold true:
- King (2010) found that revising a document three times improves the final grade.
- Smith (2016) 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 contained 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 or phrases 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 went to China in 2010.
- He completed the employee performance reviews last month.
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 travelled to China.
The present perfect focuses more on the result of the action.
- He has completed the employee performance reviews.
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 travelled to China.
- He has recently completed the employee performance reviews.
- Researchers have used this method since it was developed.
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 he study every day.
- Example: It is important that everyone set a writing schedule.
Verbs Video Playlist
Note that these videos were created while APA 6 was the style guide edition in use. There may be some examples of writing that have not been updated to APA 7 guidelines.
- Grammar for Academic Writers: Common Verb Tenses in Academic Writing (video transcript)
- Grammar for Academic Writers: Verb Tense Consistency (video transcript)
- Grammar for Academic Writers: Advanced Subject–Verb Agreement (video transcript)
- Mastering the Mechanics: Helping Verbs (video transcript)
- Mastering the Mechanics: Past Tense (video transcript)
- Mastering the Mechanics: Present Tense (video transcript)
- Mastering the Mechanics: Future Tense (video transcript)