How to use present and past tense in essays

There are three main verb forms for showing time or tense:

    Simple Tense

  • does not use auxiliary verbs  
  • refers to specific time period during which                something happens                              OR                 something happened and is over                               OR                  something will happen
  •              Simple present (action goes on now):  I sit
  •             Simple past:  (action happened and is over):   I sat
  •             Simple future  (action will happen):   I will sit
  •     Perfect Tense
  • uses have, has, or had as auxiliary verb  
  • allows action to continue over time
  1.              Present perfect (action happened and may still be going on):   I have sat
  2.             Past perfect (action happened before something happened in the past):  I had sat
  3.             Future perfect (action will be considered in the future, by which time it will have already happened):                                                                                                                                      I will have sat
  4.     Progressive Tense  
  • uses is, are, was, or were as auxiliary verb with –ing ending on main verb  
  • focuses on “progress” of action
  •              Present progressive (action is in progress right now):   I am sitting
  •             Past: progressive (action was in progress in the past):  I was sitting
  •             Future progressive (action will be in progress in the future):  I will be sitting

Each of the above tenses denotes a specific time for an action or event to take place.  Writers should be careful to use the exact tense needed to describe, narrate, or explain. 

In general . . .

  • Do not switch from one tense to another unless the timing of an action demands that you do.  
  • Keep verb  tense consistent in sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

 Verb tense consistency on the sentence level

  • Keep tenses consistent within sentences. 
  • Do not change tenses when there is no time change for the action.  
  1.          INCORRECT: 
  2.             How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays   
  3.          CORRECT: 
  4.              How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays                                            

Since there is no indication that the actions happened apart from one another., there is no reason to shift the tense of the second verb.

  •  Note another example. 
  •          INCORRECT:
  •                 How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays
  •          CORRECT:   
  •                How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays 

The above sentence means that Mary walks into a room at times.  The action is habitual present.  The second action happens when the first one does.  Therefore, the second verb should be present as well.

 Change tense only when there is a need to do so.  Usually, the timing of actions within a sentence will dictate when the tense must change.

          CORRECT: 

How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays

  1.  The first action will take place in the future; therefore, the second one will as well.
  2.              CORRECT:
  3.                 How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays 

  The second action took place in the past; the first action occurred before the past action.  Therefore, the first action requires the past perfect tense (had + verb).

Verb tense consistency on the paragraph level

  • Generally, establish a primary tense and keep tenses consistent from sentence to sentence. 
  • Do not shift tenses between sentences unless there is a time change that must be shown.
  •           PRESENT TENSE PARAGRAPH
  •                How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays  
  •     All actions in the above paragraph happen in the present except for the future possibility dependent upon a      present action taking place: ” If a cat sees the bird, the cat will kill it.”
  •           PAST TENSE PARAGRAPH
  •               How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays
  •      All of the actions in the above paragraph happen in the past except for the possibility dependent upon      one action taking place:  “If a cat saw the bird, the cat would kill it.” 
  • Verb tense consistency on the essay level 
  •   1.  Use present tense when writing essays about
  • your own ideas 
  • factual topics
  • the action in a specific movie, play, or book
  1.           YOUR OWN IDEAS
  2.              How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays
  3.         FACTUAL TOPIC
  4.           How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays     
  5.          ACTION IN A SPECIFIC MOVIE OR BOOK
  6. NOTE:  When quoting from a work, maintain the present tense in your own writing, while keeping the original tense of the quoted material.
  7.          EXAMPLE (quoted material is shown in  blue)
  8.      2. Use past tense when writing about
  • past events
  • completed studies or findings,  arguments presented in scientific literature
  •          EXAMPLE – PAST EVENT
  •  Note the justified use of present tense in the last sentence (shown in blue).
  •          EXAMPLE – SCIENTIFIC STUDY
  •     3. Use future tense when writing about
  • an event that will occur in the future.

    EXAMPLE – FUTURE EVENT

  Remember . . .

  • Change tense ONLY when something in the content of your essay demands that you do so for clarity.

 Note how the following example incorporates  tense change as needed to clarify several time periods.

How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays

Tense is almost always an issue and this is sad. Here is a tissue. What tense should you write in? The answer is mystifying but it can be absorbed, I promise. Be flexible:

You should always write in the past tense when you are speaking of a historical event, that's obvious. 

Write in the present tense when you are writing about events in a story such as a novel or TV show.

You should always write in the present tense when you are speaking of a text, any text, and for many people this is the tricky part. However, this idea is essential: whatever is happening in a text is happening forever, the action is never finished.

The man and his daughter in “American Gothic” didn't used to stand together with the pitchfork, right? because you don't look at the painting and find them gone to the fair, they stand in the painting together. They stand there forever. She never gets married, he never smokes his pipe and looks at the moon.

The kiddos on “Lost” are on the island (unless they're not, we’ll talk about this in a minute) and this is not only because the show is time-warped.

Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole each time you reach that page, right? The words, images, and sounds found in a text are eternal, what else would explain the healthy ego of the artist, high on the drug of creating such infinite gestures?

Consider Alice again.

If you are presenting an argument about the repressed female psyche in “Alice in Wonderland,” you might describe the opening scene on the grass (in the present-tense) with statements such as, “Alice sits on the grass, its well-manicured ridges representing the restrictions of Victorian life,” or “Alice sees a rabbit in the painful throes of a procrastination addiction and she follows him down…” Alice is always seeing the rabbit, she is always following him, forever and ever amen. 

It's more complicated when you're writing about events that happened in the past in the novel relative to the current time in the novel.

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The Three Common Tenses Used in Academic Writing

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

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

Both of the sentences above are grammatically correct. However, the tense used in first sentence (present simple) is more common for academic writing than the tense in the second sentence (present progressive). This handout provides the overview of three tenses that are usually found in academic writing. 

Background

There are three tenses that 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. Below are the main functions that these three tenses have in academic writing.

The Present Simple Tense

Present simple is the most common tense in academic writing, and it is usually considered as the “default” unless there is a certain reason to choose another tense (e.g. a sentence contains a past time marker). Some specific functions of present simple include:

Functions Example
1) To frame a paper. It is used in introductions to state what is already known about the topic, and in conclusions to say what is now known. Scholars share a common argument that engineering is the most male dominated of all professions. Timing of college enrollment is associated with a number of variables.
2) To point out the focus, main argument, or aim of the current paper. This paper analyses the impact of high temperatures on certain species.
3) To make general statements, conclusions, and interpretations about findings of current or previous research. It focuses on what is known now. Graduate school is regarded as crucial for starting an engineering career because failure at this stage closes the door to professional engineering careers, and later career trajectory change is more difficult the longer it is delayed.
4) To refer to findings from previous studies without mentioning the author’s name. Children ingest roughly 50-200 mg soil/day [2,3].
5) To refer to tables or figures. Table 1 presents the structural units.
6) To describe the events or plot of a literary work. This usage has the name “Narrative present”. In Mansuji Ibuse’s Black Rain, a child reaches for a pomegranate in his mother’s garden, and a moment later he is dead, killed by the blast of an atomic bomb.

The Past Simple Tense

Generally, past simple is used to refer to actions completed in the past. Some specific functions this tense has in academic writing include:

Functions Example
1) To report specific findings of a previous study (usually with the authors’ names in the sentence) to support a general statement. Probably the most commonly discussed phenomenon in music cognition is the Mozart Effect (this is the general claim). (Specific example) Rauscher and colleagues first documented this effect in their seminal paper.
2) To describe the methods or data from a completed experiment. Statistical analyses were used to determine relationships between variables.
3) To report results of the current empirical study. The L1-English writers utilized mostly NP- and PP-based bundles (78.3% of types and 77.1% of tokens).
3) After any past time marker. After the war, Germany had to face strong reparations from the allied nations.

The Present Perfect Tense

Present perfect is usually used when referring to previous research, and since it is a present tense, it indicates that the findings are relevant today. More specifically, this tense might have the following functions:

Functions Examples
1) To introduce a new topic. Could also be used to introduce a new report or paper.  There has been a large body of research regarding the effect of carbon emissions on climate change.
2) To summarize previous research with general subjects (such as “researchers have found…”) Present perfect places emphasis on what has been done rather than on what is known to be true (present simple). Some studies have found that girls have significantly higher fears than boys after trauma (Pfefferbaum et al., 1999; Pine and Cohen, 2002; Shaw, 2003).
3) To point out a “gap” in existing research: to make a connection between the past (what has been found) and the present (how will you add more to the field). While these measures have proved to be reliable and valid predictors of what they are measuring, there is little data on how they relate to each other.
4)  To describe previous findings without referring directly to the original paper. It has been shown that biodiversity is not evenly distributed throughout the world.

Common Questions about Tense in Academic Writing

Question: Can tenses change in the same paragraph or sentence?

Explanation: Yes, there are some times where it is appropriate to switch tense within a paragraph or sentence. However, you have to have a good reason for it.  For instance, 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 (one of the functions mentioned above).

Question: Are other verb tenses used in academic writing?

Explanation: Yes, although not as common, other tenses are used in academic writing as well. For example, when expressing strong predictions about the future, the future simple tense is used, or when describing events that undergo changes at the time of writing, present progressive is used.

Practice

Read the excerpt and notice the tenses used for each verb. Identify the function of each tense as illustrated in the first sentence.  

Approximately 10% of the population is diagnosed (present simple, function 4) with dyslexia (Habib, 2000). Specialized testing most often reveals this disability in third grade or later, when there develops an observable differential between reading achievement and IQ (Wenar & Kerig, 2000).

This late identification poses severe problems for effective remediation. At the time of diagnosis, poor readers are on a trajectory of failure that becomes increasingly difficult to reverse.

Attempts at intervention must both focus on remediation of the impaired components of reading as well as extensive rehabilitation to reverse the growing experience differential. 

Educators and researchers are aware of the need for early diagnosis. In response, research investigating early correlates of later reading ability/disability has burgeoned (e.g. Wagner et al., 1997).

However, these early reading studies primarily focus on school age children (e.g. Share et al., 1984).

To date, only a few studies have focused on the reading trajectories of children younger than preschool, and there is little consistency within the existing studies (e.g. Scarborough, 1990, 1991). 

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In the current study, we trace the development of the two aspects of the phonological processing deficit in a longitudinal follow-up study of two-year-olds. Shatz et al. (1996, 1999, 2001) investigated the underlying lexical structure in two-year-old children.

Although their experiments were tailored to examine early word learning behavior, their study design is uniquely suited to looking at the phonological processing skills of two-year old children as well.

In this study, we measure the early reading skills of these same two-year-olds at five to seven years of age in order to determine the predictivity of the early two-year old behaviors for later reading ability. 

Adapted from Michigan Corpus of Upper-level Student Papers. (2009). Ann Arbor, MI: The Regents of the University of Michigan

Answers

Approximately 10% of the population is diagnosed (pres. simp. F4) with dyslexia (Habib, 2000). Specialized testing most often reveals (pres. simp. F4) this disability in third grade or later, when there develops (pres. simp.

F4) an observable differential between reading achievement and IQ (Wenar & Kerig, 2000). This late identification poses (pres. simp. F3) severe problems for effective remediation. At the time of diagnosis, poor readers are (pres. simp.

F3) on a trajectory of failure that becomes (pres. simp. F3) increasingly difficult to reverse.

Attempts at intervention must both focus on remediation of the impaired components of reading as well as extensive rehabilitation to reverse the growing experience differential. 

Educators and researchers are (pres. simp. F1) aware of the need for early diagnosis. In response, research investigating early correlates of later reading ability/disability has burgeoned (pres. perf. F1) (e.g. Wagner et al., 1997).

However, these early reading studies primarily focus (pres. simp. F3) on school age children (e.g. Share et al., 1984). To date, only a few studies have focused (pres. perf. F3) on the reading trajectories of children younger than preschool, and there is (pres. simp.

F3) little consistency within the existing studies (e.g. Scarborough, 1990, 1991). 

In the current study, we trace (pres. simp. F2) the development of the two aspects of the phonological processing deficit in a longitudinal follow-up study of two-year-olds. Shatz et al. (1996, 1999, 2001) investigated (past. simp.

F1) the underlying lexical structure in two-year-old children. Although their experiments were tailored (past. simp. F1) to examine early word learning behavior, their study design is uniquely suited (pres. simp.

F3) to looking at the phonological processing skills of two-year old children as well. In this study, we measure (pres. simp.

F2) the early reading skills of these same two-year-olds at five to seven years of age in order to determine the predictivity of the early two-year old behaviors for later reading ability. 

The information in this handout is adapted from Caplan, N. (2015). Grammar choices for graduate and professional writers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 

Last updated 12/20/2017

How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essay Writing

Today we look at how we use present and past tenses in our essay writing to convery our message through our best of knowledge with a proper tone.

Essay writing! You might be thinking that why is a blog post on essay writing? It is something everyone can do. Yes, you are very correct everyone can do it but the point is who does it in the right way.

Suppose you need to write an essay in an exam in your answer sheet. The most important thing is that you need to keep the content relevant and keep a check on your verb tenses. While you would be moving fro tense to tense it may create some confusion while writing or while transitioning the content. Often you would need to switch tense which might upset the sequence of narration.

1. Try to Write the Essays in Present Tense

Generally, while writing essays, the writer must always use the present tense. If you wish to use the past tense then you need to refer to the events of the past. It shows the author’s ideas in a historical context.

There is an exception to all these rules which explains that it is a narrative essay through which a writer can choose the past or present tense in the writing style.

But the point that needs to consider is that the tense should remain consistent throughout the content.

When you are completely indulging in the writing process then it shows your effectiveness in every essay possible. Simple said, the answer would depend on the type of essay where you would be writing. When you are shifting tense from one to another, it becomes a bit distracting to the reader and they might leave it in the middle.

Are there any rules for using tenses in scientific papers?

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What Tense Should I Use in Writing? | The Proofreading Pulse

When writing, people are often confused about what tense they should use.

Should I write this MLA history paper in past tense? Should I write my short story in present or past tense? How about a resume: should I write my job entries in present or past? And these people are right to be confused because what tense you should use varies widely depending on your writing style and your purpose.

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Academic (Four Main Styles)

APA/Harvard: Per APA (and its non-American variant, Harvard), you should primarily use past tense, especially in literature reviews where you’re talking about authors’ past studies. It should be:

“Johnson (2008) argued . . .”

not

“Johnson (2008) argues . . . .”

The same is true for your Results and Method sections, but APA makes an exception for Discussion sections (where you examine your conclusions and the implications of the study), which can be in present tense if it better conveys your meaning.

MLA: This style is a bit more straightforward. Per MLA, you should be almost always using present tense:

“In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch argues . . .”

If you need to differentiate time, you should use present perfect tense:

“For many years, Scout has been worrying about . . . .”

If you must, you can use some past tense, but keep it to a minimum.

Chicago: This style is a bit more lenient. Per Chicago, you can use either present or past (Though it’s best to use present when discussing literature and past when writing about history.), but make sure you stay consistent. If you switch, make sure you need to, such as:

The Romans used various military strategies, some of which are still in use today.

AP: AP, which is used by news media, is also more flexible. There is no set tense; instead, you should be endeavoring to use present/past/future as necessary to make sure the events you are describing are as clear as possible. AP also recommends using time words (today, tomorrow, March 17, etc.) to anchor your piece and further reduce ambiguity.

  • Resume
  • When talking about your job experience in resumes, the rule is simple: Use present tense for current positions:
  • Lead team in HVAC solutions
  • And use past tense for past positions:
  • Led team in HVAC solutions
  • Business Plan

Professors and potential investors have different views on what tense a business plan should be written in, but definitely you should be using either future or present tense. Some people argue that you should always write a business plan in future tense because you’re talking about your future plans.

But there’s another school of thought that recommends using present tense instead because this will allow your plan to stay current as you develop it and you develop your business. In other words, as you develop your business, you develop your plan, and it stays current with what you’re doing.

Fiction

Common Uses of Tenses in Academic Writing

Tense communicates an event’s location in time. The different tenses are identified by their associated verb forms.

There are three main tenses: pastpresent, and future.

In English, each of these tenses can take four main aspects: simpleperfectcontinuous (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.

In academic writing, the most commonly used tenses are the present simple, the past simple, and the present perfect.

Tenses in different sections of a dissertation 

Tenses and their functions

The table below gives an overview of some of the basic functions of tenses and aspects. Tenses locate an event in time, while aspects communicate durations and relationships between events that happen at different times.

TenseFunctionExample
Present simple used for facts, generalizations, and truths that are not affected by the passage of time “She writes a lot of papers for her classes.”
Past simple used for events completed in the past “She wrote the papers for all of her classes last month.”
Future simple used for events to be completed in the future “She will write papers for her classes next semester.”
Present perfect used to describe events that began in the past and are expected to continue, or to emphasize the relevance of past events to the present moment “She has written papers for most of her classes, but she still has some papers left to write.”
Past perfect used to describe events that happened prior to other events in the past “She had written several papers for her classes before she switched universities.”
Future perfect used to describe events that will be completed between now and a specific point in the future “She will have written many papers for her classes by the end of the semester.”
Present continuous used to describe currently ongoing (usually temporary) actions “She is writing a paper for her class.”
Past continuous used to describe ongoing past events, often in relation to the occurrence of another event “She was writing a paper for her class when her pencil broke.”
Future continuous used to describe future events that are expected to continue over a period of time “She will be writing a lot of papers for her classes next year.”
Present perfect continuous used to describe events that started in the past and continue into the present or were recently completed, emphasizing their relevance to the present moment “She has been writing a paper all night, and now she needs to get some sleep.”
Past perfect continuous used to describe events that began, continued, and ended in the past, emphasizing their relevance to a past moment “She had been writing a paper all night, and she needed to get some sleep.”
Future perfect continuous used to describe events that will continue up until a point in the future, emphasizing their expected duration “She will have been writing this paper for three months when she hands it in.”

When to use the present simple

The present simple is the most commonly used tense in academic writing, so if in doubt, this should be your default choice of tense. There are two main situations where you always need to use the present tense.

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 your introduction.

  • The Eiffel tower is in Paris.
  • Light travels faster than sound.

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