Struggling With Tenses? Consider Their Purpose

One of the most important parts of any project is the description of that project’s aims, goals, and findings. In these framing sections it is crucial to keep consistent the verb tenses you use to refer to what your project is doing, since failing to do so can lead to significant reader misunderstandings about your project’s focus, level of completeness, or other aspects. This entry is designed to overview the different uses and connotations of using past, present, and future tense in your writing, specifically in sentence- and paragraph-level sections where you are framing the intentions of your paper or study. The accompanying exercise guides you through choosing a tense and making sure it is applied consistently throughout your writing, in order to ensure your intentions come through clearly to your reader as you improve the Clarity, Grammar, and Usage of your text.

When writing about a project you can pick from a number of verb tenses.

In this paper we examine

In this study we examined

In this project we will examine

This entry from Purdue OWL further explains the basics of simple (they examine) and perfect (they have examined) tenses. As it makes clear, each tense communicates slightly different expectations of what’s being expressed. Many times in academic writing, it’s appropriate to use one of a number of tenses in your work, and choosing between them involves two steps: determining what you want to communicate, and deciding which tense best evokes that.

The most commonly used tenses in academic writing are present simple, present perfect, and past simple. In general, the present tense evokes immediacy and discusses information that is already known: “at this moment, we examine (x).” The past tense evokes stability: “in conclusion,  we have examined (x)”. Finally, the future tense gestures towards the rest of the paper or study, locating the resolution there: “over the course of this paper, we will examine (x)”. Simple tenses communicate strong, concluded (or determined) outcomes, while perfect tenses relate an outcome to another point in time. While these differences are subtle, it’s important to know that your use of one of them will also communicate these subtle differences (among others) to your reader. Ask yourself what you want to communicate to your reader about the project’s completeness, certainty, and connection to previously known information.

Once you’ve chosen a tense, you should make sure it remains consistent through your framing sections, unless you are changing it intentionally. For an example, consider the following sentence:

“In this essay, I will suggest that the novel was a significant cultural force in eighteenth-century England. I showed that the primary authors of the time were not niche, as they have been viewed, but were integral to English cultural life.”

Here, the two verbs that refer to the author’s actions communicate different things about the project. In the first case, the argument is ongoing and gestures to a later point in the essay where it will be resolved. In the second, the argument is presented as already having been resolved and experienced by the reader. This leads to confusion, because it’s not clear how the reader should approach the rest of the paper.

The following exercise guides you through the process of identifying framing sections and choosing and standardizing a tense. Before you begin this exercise, select a portion of your work where you are describing your aims. These sections include:

Pick one of these categories for now.

Step 1: Read through and write down each tense used in your chosen section (i.e. future, past, past perfect, etc.).

Step 2: When you’ve identified your tenses, read through again and try to describe what each tense evokes. For example, past tense might suggest your project is completed and the result is set in stone. Future tense, on the other hand, might suggest that the project is still underway or the results are more in flux. Try to think about why you chose the tenses you chose.

Step 3: If there is more than one tense in the section you’re reading, after step 2, you will need to decide which of the tenses to keep and use. Compare your reasons for using both. Do you think one better fits your goals than the other? E.g., If I want to make my argument sound dynamic and involve the reader in my process, would present or future be a better choice? This is an individual decision, but try to think about how the tense will affect the reader’s experience of the text.

Once you’ve completed this exercise in one section of your paper and decided on a tense, it can be helpful to read through again and make sure your tenses align. It’s appropriate to use a range of different tenses throughout your paper (i.e., I might talk about my own work in the present tense, but mention an author’s claims in the past tense). What you are looking to standardize here is the tenses you use when referencing your own work within this paper or project and what you aim to do.

For more on sentence-level clarity issues try: “Clarity Issues? Try this Pronoun and Pointing Term Review” and “Relational Terms and Failures of Logical Reasoning: Positive and Negative Value Assignments.”

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