Tenses in writing

Verb tenses tell readers when events or actions occured in time—in the past, present, or future. Your verb choices can also indicate aspect, which expresses the completeness or effects of an action.

Verb Tenses

The present tense is used to express anything that is happening now or occurring in the present moment. The present also communicates actions that are ongoing, constant, or habitual. For example:

I'm working on an essay for my English class.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
John loves music.
I run four miles every morning.

Use the past tense to indicate past events, prior conditions, or completed processes. For example:

I voted last week.
Ancient Romans believed basil was poisonous.
The fortress crumbled to ruin during the last century.

The future tense indicates actions or events that will happen in the future. For example:

I will write my paper this weekend.

Aspect allows you to be more precise in your selection of verbs. Aspect falls into two categories: continuous and perfect. To indicate the continuous aspect, add a form of the verb "to be" and a present participle to your main verb. The perfect aspect is created with a form of the verb "to have" and a past participle.

The following chart shows twelve forms of the verb "to write" that result from combining time with aspect.

past present future
simple He wrote He writes He will write
continuous He was writing He is writing He will be writing
perfect He had written He has written He will have written
perfect continuous He had been writing He has been writing He will have been writing

(aspect summary)

Aspect in Detail

The continuous aspect is created with a form of "to be" and a present participle (about participles). For example:

I am writing. (present continuous)
I was writing when he called. (past continuous)
If you want to come over later, we will be watching a movie. (future continuous)

The perfect aspect is created with a form of the verb "to have" and a past participle. For example:

I have been in Seattle for six months. (present perfect)
I had studied all night for the test. (past perfect)
I will have finished my paper by eight o'clock. (future perfect)

The perfect aspect is often the most challenging to understand, so here's a brief overview.

Past Perfect describes a past action completed before another. For example, the next two sentences describe one action followed by another, but each achieves a different rhetorical effect by using different verb forms.

She wrote the essay and reread it the next day.   simple past tense: "wrote"
The next day, she reread the essay she had written.   past perfect: "had written"

"Wrote" and "reread" sound equally important in the first sentence. In the second, the past perfect form "had written" emphasizes the action "reread."

Present Perfect refers to completed actions which endure to the present or whose effects are still relevant.

I broke my leg.   (This could refer to any time in my past.)
I have broken my leg.   (The leg is still broken or otherwise affects my current condition.)

I acted for 10 years.   (This implies I no longer act.)
I have acted for 10 years.   (This implies I still act.)

Future Perfect refers to an action that will be completed in the future.

She will have written 10 books by her eightieth birthday.

One final note: the terms used to describe aspect have changed over time, and different terms are often used to describe the same aspect. It may help to know that the following terms are equivalent:

Verb Tenses in Context

Conventions governing the use of tenses in academic writing differ somewhat from ordinary usage. Below we cover the guidelines for verb tenses in a variety of genres.

Academic Writing

1. Academic writing generally concerns writing about research. As such, your tense choices can indicate to readers the status of the research you're citing. You have several options for communicating research findings, and each has a different rhetorical effect. For example:

If you choose the present tense, as in Example 1.1, you're implying that the findings of the research are generally accepted, whereas the present perfect tense in 1.2 implies not only general acceptance but also current relevance and, possibly, the continuity of the findings as an authoritative statement on the causes of death. On the other hand, the past tense in Example 1.3 emphasizes the finding at the time the research was conducted, rather than its current acceptance.

However, if you are writing about specific research methods, the process of research and data collection, or what happened during the research process, you will more commonly use the past tense, as you would normally use in conversation. The reason is that, in this instance, you are not emphasizing the findings of the research or its significance, but talking about events that occurred in the past. Here is an example:

Books, Poems, Plays, Movies

2. When you are discussing a book, poem, movie, play, or song the convention in disciplines within the humanities is to use the present tense, as in:

Historical Contrast

3. In cases where it is useful to contrast different ideas that originate from different periods, you can use the past and the present or present perfect tense to do so. The past tense implies that an idea or a theory has lost its currency or validity, while the present tense conveys relevance or the current state of acceptance.

For example, when you want to discuss the fact that a theory or interpretation has been supplanted by new perspectives on the subject:

The verb tenses used above emphasize the contrast between the old view (by Stanley Fish), which is indicated by the past tense, and the new view (by "recent literary critics"), which is indicated by the present tense or the present perfect tense. The difference between the present tense and the present perfect (i.e. between consider and have considered ) is that the present perfect suggests that the current view has been held for some time.

Research Proposals

4. The future tense is standard in research proposals because they largely focus on plans for the future. However, when writing your research paper, use the past tense to discuss the data collection processes, since the development of ideas or experiments— the process of researching that brings the reader to your ultimate findings—occurred in the past.

Resumes and Cover Letters

5. In a resume, the past tense is used for reporting past experience and responsibilities. However, in a statement of purpose, a personal statement, or a cover letter, the present perfect tense is commonly used to relate past experience to present abilities, e.g., "I have managed fourteen employees."

Stories/Narrative Prose

6. The past tense is commonly used when writing a narrative or a story, as in:

Some writers use the present tense in telling stories, a technique called the "historical present" that creates an air of vividness and immediacy. For example:

In this example, the speaker switches from the past tense in giving context for the story to the present tense in relating the events themselves.

As we reviewed here, verb tenses can convey different meanings and degrees of precision, and most genres of academic writing follow specific conventions for tense and aspect.

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