Simple present tense is also frequently used in literature reviews, and carries a strong implication when it is used. Simple present tense is used either to describe knowledge that is so widely accepted that it is no longer disputed, to refer to findings that apply generally (not just to specific studies), or to refer to ongoing debates. Put another way, simple present tense should be used when you are confident about particular knowledge, when you are confident that knowledge is correct for all situations, or when a debate is as yet unresolved.
What is Simple Present Tense?
Simple present tense in academic writing generally involves using the passive voice, and not mentioning the author(s) directly in the sentence. In other words, sentences in simple present tense usually include the word “is”, “are”, “can” or “may”.
The whole of Paragraph Version 1 is in simple present tense (bold indicates instances of simple present tense):
Although it is well recognized that eating fruit is good for you (e.g. Browne et al. 1978; Jones et al. 1982; King and Johnson 1984), the optimal quantities and proportions of each type of fruit are much debated (e.g. Whyte and Greene 1986; Linden et al. 1988). Apples are generally accepted to be the best source of iron (Smythe et al. 1992) and oranges are known to have the highest vitamin C content (Davidson 1963). However, some authors argue that eating mangos (Orchard et al. 1972) and grapes (Vintner 1987) too often can have negative effects on overall health, and can also lead to the development of intolerances (Emdee et al. 2007).
Note that, like with perfect present tense, these sentences do not refer directly to the authors who conducted the research. Instead, they either don’t mention them at all, or refer to “some authors”, and the names of the authors are given parenthetically as citations.
What does Simple Present Tense imply?
The implication of these sentences is that these findings have conclusively been shown to be true and are widely accepted by everyone, or, in the case of debates, that such debates are ongoing. In the above sentences, the author seems to feel that it is an undisputable fact that eating fruit is good for you, although there is an ongoing general debate about the specifics of how much and which types of fruit. The author also feels that the points about apples and oranges are also widely agreed upon, but that the debates about the effects of eating too many mangoes and grapes are ongoing and unresolved.
Are there other ways to use Simple Present Tense?
Another way to use simple present tense is when presenting something you are absolutely sure about. In this case you might use the active voice rather than the passive voice. Such statements might be so widely acknowledged to be true that you may not even need a citation to back them up. Here are three examples:
- The global population exceeds 7 billion people, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise (IPCC 2016).
- Earth is the third planet from the sun and the only one in our solar system that supports life.
- Smoking causes cancer.
The implication of such statements is very strong: they imply that these pieces of information are undoubtedly the truth. Literature reviews written with a lot of simple present tense are often engaging to read, and flow well. However, exercise caution in using simple present tense in this way, and to use it only for statements that you are very confident about. If readers fundamentally disagree with your viewpoint when it is stated in this strong way using simple present tense, they may feel your research is flawed and simply stop reading and disregard your paper. For example, how would you feel reading this:
HIV is cured by consuming large quantities of garlic, and tuberculosis is prevented by eating three apples a day.
Finally, simple present tense is also frequently used in the part of the Introduction Section that refers to the present study. In this case it is also usually used in the active voice rather than the passive voice. Here is an example:
In this study, we examine the likelihood of developing a food intolerance after eating a range of quantities of mangoes every day. We hypothesize that a daily consumption of two mangoes or more leads to food intolerances in at least 50% of adults.
The above example has a more immediate and active tone than the example in simple past tense, and carries a feeling of momentum. If you are using more of a storytelling approach, you might also wish to intersperse some simple future tense in this part of the Introduction Section:
In this study, we will examine the likelihood of developing a food intolerance after eating a range of quantities of mangoes every day. We hypothesize that a daily consumption of two mangoes or more leads to food intolerances in at least 50% of adults.
What happens if I use Simple Present Tense too much in my Introduction Section?
Simple present tense is also often the most commonly used tense in the Introduction Section, so it is unlikely that you would use it too much. However, as mentioned above, it is always a good idea to vary your use of tense. Again, in doing so, consider carefully what the implications of the different tenses are, so that while relieving the monotony you are also conveying the correct subtle message to your reader about how you feel about the information you are presenting.