Several different types of tense

In the Introduction section of academic articles, several different tenses are commonly mixed:

  • Simple past tense,
  • Present perfect tense,
  • Past perfect tense, and
  • Simple present tense.

The following sections will discuss each of these in detail.

Meanings and implications of different tenses

Tenses have both a direct, straightforward meaning, and a somewhat hidden, or subtle, connotation. Subtle in this context means “so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/subtle). This is true of many statements we can make in English (and doubtless in all languages).

For example, consider four versions of a simple statement:

  1. “I went to England” (simple past tense)
  2. “I have been to England” (present perfect tense)
  3. “I had been to England” (past perfect tense)
  4. “I am in England” (simple present tense)

The meaning of 1, 2, and 3 is that, sometime in the past, I did go to England, and the meaning of 4 is that currently I am in England. The implications of the three statements about the past (1, 2, and 3), however, are subtly different. The implication of “I went to England” is that this was a single event that took place at one point in the past. It might have been a holiday, a work trip, or a long stay; the reader can’t tell. The implication of “I have been to England” is that this is an experience I have had, possibly many times. Typically, the writer would be discussing the travelling he has done in his life. The implication of “I had been to England” is that going to England was something I had done prior to something else. For example, “I had been to England already, so I didn’t go there on my last trip.”

To take another example, the statement “I drove the car” implies a specific event, whereas “I have driven the car” implies that I have experience of driving that car, and “I had driven the car” implies that I already had experience of driving that car before something else happened. “I drive the car” is more straightforward, meaning simply that I still drive it these days.

Similarly, a witness who tells the police “I saw her at the market” is implying something different from one who says “I have seen her at the market” or “I had seen her at the market”. The first witness is probably referring to the specific time or event the police are interested in, whereas the second witness is suggesting that the woman may frequent the market (“I have seen her there”) or that she frequented it before a particular event happened (“I had seen her there”), but not that she was necessarily at the market at the time of interest. The statement “I see her at the market” would imply that both the witness and the woman of interest are still regularly going to the market.

In academic literature reviews, these subtle differences become more complex, and can be used to convey the way the author feels about the literature they are reviewing, including their level of confidence in the findings. For example, the following simple examples all have different implications:

  1. Smith (1972) showed that summers were cooler in the north.
  2. It has been shown that summers are cooler in the north (Smith 1972).
  3. Smith had already shown, in 1972, that summers were cooler in the north.
  4. Summers are cooler in the north (Smith 1972).

Can you tell what the different implications of each of the above sentences are? In the following sections, I will take you through the most common different ways in which tenses are used in the Introduction Section, and particularly in the literature review. Once you have read through the rest of the chapter, I suggest coming back to these sentences to see if the differences in implication have become clearer for you.

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