What Tenses are used in Academic Writing

What Tenses are used in Academic Writing the present simple, the past simple, and the present perfect

The tense a piece of writing is framed in has a dense effect on the message the piece of writing is conveying. Imagine writing the history of Shaka Zulu of the Zulu Kingdom in the present tense, people who will read your work will probably be thinking you are trivial. Unfortunately Burmese, Dyirbal and Chinese languages have no tenses generally, so reading Shaka’s history in Burmese, Dyirbal or Chinese is trivial. Although the speakers of Burmese, Dyirbal or Chinese themselves have a way of indicating the time frame, the English language unlike these languages expressly uses tenses to express the time frame.

What is a tense

In grammar, tense is the state of being of a verb or the time frame of a verb. That is a verb expressing what is happening now or what happened then or what will happen.

The Main Types of Tenses

They are three main types of tense namely Present, Past and Future tense. These tenses are further given more formation about their time frame in simple, perfect, continuous or progressive, and perfect continuous. The focus of this article is on the present simple, the past simple, and the present perfect as they are the main type of tenses used in academic writing.

The Present simple

It is the default tense in academic writing it is used to describe facts, generalizations, and truths that are unchanging. for example,

Dennis sleeps a lot during the day.”

“ This piece of text analyses the effect of burning fossil fuels in the environment

The Present Perfect

It is used in academic writing to describe previous research or events that began in the past and to emphasize the relevance of the previous research or events findings in the contemporary.

“Dennis has written lab reports for most of his second-year courses, but he still has some lab reports left to write.”

“ it has been demonstrated that technological advancements are not evenly distributed in the global village”

Past simple

It is used in academic writing to refer to historical events or actions completed in the past.

“Dennis wrote the lab reports for all of his second-year courses last month.”

“ Data obtained from the survey was used to determine the likelihood of the events taking place”


The Functions of tenses in Academic Writing

The tables below elaborate on the functions of the 3 commonly used tenses in Academic Writing according to The Writing Center at George Mason University.

The Present Simple Tense 



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.

The timing of college enrolment 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 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 



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 the 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 



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.



Adapted from:

Bryson, S (2014) Common Uses of Tenses in Academic Writing. Scribbr. Available at: https://www.scribbr.com/language-rules/tenses/ (Accessed 01 Jul. 22)

Nordquist, R (2019) Understanding Verb Tenses. ThoughtCo. Available at https://www.thoughtco.com/tense-grammar-1692532. (Accessed 01 Jul. 22)

The Writing Center (no date) The Three Common Tenses Used in Academic Writing. George Mason University. https://d101vc9winf8ln.cloudfront.net/documents/27010/original/The_Three_Common_Tenses_Used_in_Academic_WritingATI.pdf?1565036748 (Accessed 01 Jul. 22)

Enago Academy (2018) How to Use Tenses in Academic Writing Effectively. Available at: https://www.enago.com/academy/tense-usage-in-academic-writing/ (Accessed 01 Jul. 22)


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 This article can be cited as Reference: Nyambe, E.N. (2022) What Tenses are used in Academic Writing. Retrieved from: https://www.amulufeblog.com/2022/07/what-tenses-are-used-in-academic-writing.html
Law Student, The University of Zambia

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