Verb Tenses in Academic Writing



Verb Tenses in Academic Writing

By the Walden University Writing Center Staff

Common Verb Tenses

Verb tenses place actions in time, expressing whether the actions already took place (past), are currently taking place (present), or will be taking place (future). In scholarly writing, the most common verb tenses we use are the following:

Use the simple present to describe a general truth, an action that is happening now, or an action that occurs on a regular basis:

This study addresses the shortage of research about gifted students.
Skinner’s theories remain valid today.

Use the simple past tense to describe an action that took place at a specific point in the past:

The instructor discovered that her students retained information better when they were given more autonomy.
 Zimbardo (1998) researched many aspects of social psychology.

Use the future tense to describe an action that will take place at a particular point in the future:

Tomorrow, I will distribute the surveys to my students.
 Many students will attend the residency next June.

Use the present perfect tense (have + verb)  to describe an action that began in the past and continues in the present:

Researchers have shown that the corpus callosum is more developed in cats than in dogs. (Notice that the implication here is that the research showed this in the past and continues to show this presently).
Psychoneuroimmunologists have demonstrated the influence of stress on chronic illnesses.

Use the past perfect tense (had + verb) to describe an action that began in the past and continued for some time but is no longer happening.

Before Freud’s discovery, psychologists had believed that hysteria was caused by a wandering womb.
Since she had developed her critical thinking skills, Mary performed well on the test.

Use the future perfect tense (will have + verb)  to describe an action that is presently taking place and will continue taking place until some point in the future.

I will have revised this thesis 50 times by the end of the semester.
I will have been at Walden University for 2 years by the time I complete the thesis.

Verb Tense Consistency

Within a sentence, verb tenses need to be consistent, and they must reflect a logical progression of events or actions. Within a paragraph, moreover, the sequence of tenses from sentence to sentence has to make sense. Consider the following examples, and note how the two parts of each sentence (main clause and subordinate clause in these cases) must relate logically through proper use of verb tenses:

Incorrect: When Smith tried to contact the interviewees for a follow up, some of them moved.  (This sentence wrongly implies that the contact attempt caused the moving).
Correct: When Smith tried to contact the interviewees for a follow up, some of them had moved. (This sentence makes it clear that the moves had already happened prior to the contact attempt).

Incorrect: Because 80% of the women dropped out of the study, the research had been stopped.  (Verb tense errors here create an illogical cause-effect reversal).
Correct: Because 80% of the women dropped out of the study, the research had to be stopped. (The cause-effect here is clear and logical).

For ensuring clarity and smoothness of expression, then, accuracy and consistency in our use of verb tenses is a must. Abrupt changes in verb tense or use of the wrong verb tense can confuse the reader by creating ambiguities about the progress of actions in time.

APA and Verb Tenses

In addition to calling for consistency and accuracy, APA formatting calls for the use of specific verb tenses for paraphrasing and analyzing research that is incorporated into an essay’s argument. Generally speaking, research results need to be described in the past tense because the research took place at a particular moment in the past:

The participants in the experimental group reported that their depression had decreased significantly (Thompson, 2003). In addition, 68 of those participants reported nausea (Thompson, 2003).

On the other hand, literature review data may be discussed in the present perfect tense because the results of the past research may still be pertinent today:

While some researchers have argued that stress does not affect immunity, others have shown a direct causal connection between exposure to stress and lowered white blood cell count.

Lastly, the implications of research results may be described in the present tense if those implications are meaningful in the present:

The results of Jones’s study (2003) suggest that adult learners prefer collaborative activities.

The Conditional Verb Tenses

You’ve now learned about the standard verb tense: the present tense (what is going on now); the past tense (what happened at specific times in the past); the future tense (what will happen); the present perfect tense (what started in the past and is still going on today); and the past perfect tense (what happened in the past but not at a specific time).

But what if your actions depend on a condition? What do you do when you need to convey something you could do, would do, could have done, would have done, or would never do again?
When expressing something that has not actually happened or that could or might happen in the future, you will have two main clauses. The first clause is called the condition clause and almost always begins with the words if, were, or had (if I had; were they there; had she known). The second clause, called the result clause, will contain the words could, would, or will to form the conditional tense.

Some Walden assignments ask you to describe what you would do in a certain situation. For example, you might be asked to describe an ethical standard, the violation of which you think would have serious implications for or effect on a client or patient.

In your response, you’ll be speaking hypothetically. The most common hypothetical statements use an interesting combination of the present and past tense:

If I violated ethical standard A.2 from the Ethical Standards for School Counselors (American School Counselor Association, 2008), I would risk the confidentiality of the students in my school.

Hypothetical statements can also combine the present and the future tense (use this format when you are predicting something about the future):

If I violate ethical standard A.2 from the Ethical Standards for School Counselors (American School Counselor Association, 2008), I will risk the confidentiality of the students in my school.

In addition, hypothetical situations can describe imagined or unreal events in the past. For these situations, use a combination of the perfect and conditional tenses:

If I had violated ethical standard A.2 from the Ethical Standards for School Counselors (American School Counselor Association, 2008), I would have risked the confidentiality of the students in my school.

Expressing a present unreal event is also known as the subjunctive mood:

If I were violating ethical standard A.2 from the Ethical Standards for School Counselors (American School Counselor Association, 2008), I would be risking the confidentiality of the students in my school.


A few notes about the conditional:

Wishing something is always an unreal condition (I wish I had not violated standard A.2).
The verb to be uses the form were in an unreal condition (If I were a better counselor, I would…).
In order to express the unreal, the hypothetical, the speculative, or the imagined, you will move one step back in time in your condition clause (see chart below).

Verb Tense Progression Chart

Simple Present They discuss
Present Perfect They have discussed
Simple Past They discussed
Past Perfect They had discussed
Future They will discuss
Future Perfect They will have discussed
Present hypothetical If they discussed…, they would know…
If they had discussed…, they would have known…
(go back to the past to discuss the present)
Future prediction If they discuss…, they will know…
(go back to the present to discuss the future)
Subjunctive If they were discussing…, they would know…
If they had been discussing, they would have known
(go back to the present to discuss the future)