This week’s post comes from Cassily Charles who is the Academic Literacy Learning and Numeracy Coordinator for postgraduate students at Charles Sturt University. Here she tackles the tricky subject of tense in research writing.
People often ask about the right verb tenses to use in the thesis or research article – e.g. is it better to write ‘Wang (2011) noted’, ‘Wang (2011) has noted’, or ‘Wang (2011) notes’? Does it make any difference? Should it be consistent in the paragraph / section / chapter?
Experienced research writers, including supervisors, often know instinctively what verb tense will do the job, but don’t always find it easy to explain why. In workshops and discussions with research candidates, I use a simple model which seems to be very helpful: the 3 different types of time in research writing.
- Real World Time
e.g. Participants completed online surveys.
Australia’s tax base will shrink in coming decades.
- Truth Time
e.g. Language is a social semiotic phenomenon (Halliday, 1972).
On this evidence, afternoon is the peak time for fine root growth in grape vines.
- Text Time
e.g. Chapter 2 will provide a review of the literature.
Figure 3 shows the distribution of recovering vegetation.
As has been outlined in the previous section…
These types of time are each more frequent in different parts of the thesis or research article, depending on the author’s purpose within that chapter or section. Below is a condensed version of how I describe this in writing workshops.
Real World Time is needed to record events which are tied to a specific time and place in the world outside the thesis. The Methods chapter or section needs this most consistently because its purpose is to accurately report the data collection and analysis processes which have taken place. Since these are over before the time of reading and writing the finished thesis or paper, the Methods is almost always in simple past tense – e.g. All plants were maintained in a glasshouse with a maximum temperature of 25°C.
Real World Time can also be expressed in other tenses, such as simple present or future tense. For example, events outside the thesis might be reported in the Introduction as context for the research – e.g. Australia employs high numbers of migrant nurses; As a larger proportion of the workforce retires, Australia will experience a shrinking tax base.
Real World Time is also important in the Results chapter or section, when summarising specific findings. The results exist outside the thesis in that the information was collected and analysed outside the thesis, in real time. Importantly, anything reported in Real World Time belongs only to that particular data, in that particular place and time. As soon as the writer interprets that data, or makes a generalisation which goes beyond that specific data, she or he moves into Truth Time.
Truth Time, in contrast to Real World Time, is used for facts, or interpretations which are meant to hold true beyond one specific event, time or data set – e.g. These findings suggest that maternal self-efficacy is relatively stable across the transition to motherhood. Simple present tense is used for Truth Time in English.
Of course the notion of ‘truth’ may not be an appropriate one for research claims or even statements of fact, for a number of reasons – e.g. there may be debate, different interpretations in other disciplines or schools of thought, and future evidence may change our understanding. Nonetheless, some parts of the thesis or research article have the purpose of making these claims – particularly the Discussion and Conclusion – so there is always at least a bit of Truth Time in those sections/chapters.
Uncertainty, risk and possible debate need to be carefully managed when using Truth Time, and research writers often use modality in various forms for this – e.g. The clinical supervision toolkit may be useful for policy makers in other allied health professions; The in vitro results suggest some potential anti-diabetic activity of these polyphenols.
The third type of time is Text Time, which can appear in many sections and helps the reader to navigate the thesis, chapter, article or page. Typically, future tense or present tense are used for things which are ‘later’ in the text, past or present tenses are used for things which are ‘earlier’ in the text. A common place to find this signposting is in the Introduction to a chapter, paper or section – e.g. The sections which follow will outline the factors which made a social media policy for NSW Police necessary; As Chapter 2 has shown, previous research has lacked a theory of clinical practice. Navigation also occurs within a page, when referring to figures and tables. In this case, present tense is the most usual – e.g. Figure 3 shows the increased granularity available using the NIRST analysis.
The examples at the top of this post are from the Literature Review: ‘Wang (2011) noted’ versus ‘Wang (2011) has noted’ versus ‘Wang (2011) notes’. The first two examples are Real World Time – treating Wang’s findings as actual research events, which happened prior to the time of writing and reading. The difference between simple past (noted) and present perfect (has noted) is how strongly Wang’s findings link to the author’s own research. Present perfect brings Wang’s past work into the present, treating its results as relevant *now*. This shows the reader that the author intends to build on Wang’s work in some way – e.g. to apply it, extend it, use her model or perhaps critique it.
In contrast, simple past leaves Wang’s work in the past, unconnected with the present time. This is a signal to the reader that the outcomes of Wang’s work are not especially relevant to the current research. This is quite a common tense when the author needs to show that she/he is familiar with that literature, but doesn’t intend to build from it.
The third option, present tense, is using Truth Time for Wang’s work. This can be a sign of extra respect and is appropriate when Wang’s study, or Wang herself, is of central importance to the field, or to your work – e.g. Bruce’s (2008) Informed Learning model clarifies the ways in which information use and the content of learning influence one another; Singer (2004) shows the benefits of a global, rather than a nationalistic, ethical framework.
Since the literature review includes discussion of many pieces of literature, each with a different type of relevance to the author’s own work, there is regular shifting between these different tenses.
I love sharing this model with research writers, especially people whose first language is not English. It seems to give people quick relief from trying to be consistent or ‘correct’ with verb tenses – and instead puts the choice back in their hands: What type of time will do the right job?
Some useful resources for practitioners or research writers:
Swales, J., & Feak, C. (2004). Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks & Skills. 2nd ed. University of Michigan Press.
Li, L., & Ge, Guang-Chun (2009). Genre analysis: Structural and linguistic evolution of the English-medium medical research article (1985-2004). English for Specific Purpose, 28(2), 93-104. doi:10.1016/j.esp.2008.12.004
The above is an example of empirical evidence of these patterns of tenses in scientific writing.
Phrasebank is a handy source of examples, which include common clauses (with their verb tenses) for specific purposes and sections in research writing.