Working with tenses in English academic writing is one of the most challenging aspects for non-native speakers of English (NNSE). One reason for this is that there is often no equivalent, or no direct equivalent, in the writer’s native language. Different tenses have different implications for
meaning, especially in the context of a literature review, and textbooks often do not explain these. Many textbooks, teachers, and journal reviewers oversimplify the usage and meaning of verb tenses. Also, some reviewers may advocate the use of a particular tense because their journal prefers it, but that does not necessarily mean that style is universally preferred.
How can you improve this aspect of your writing? Firstly, read this chapter and complete the exercises at the end of it. Secondly, pay attention to tense when you read papers written by native speakers. Thirdly, when working with English-speaking academics, try asking them questions about their use of tense in their papers. With these three approaches, taken together,
you will be able to make incremental improvements in your use of verb tenses, which will make your research writing easier to read and comprehend, and therefore more likely to get through a peer review.
However, keep in mind that, verb tense usage is an aspect of academic writing that even native speakers of English can take years to master, so don’t lose heart if you continue to find it challenging! Keep practicing, observing, and questioning, and you will improve.
Tense in the Introduction Section
Your Introduction sets the stage for your research, by providing your readers with an overview of the background upon which your study is built. It can be challenging to identify what to include and what to leave out of the Introduction. Did you know, though, that the way you present the details you choose to include can change the meaning, tone, and connotations of what you write?
There are many slightly different ways of writing about previous research, and each one conveys a different message to the reader about how the author feels about this research. You can learn to use these different methods to make your writing more interesting, engaging, and convincing.
Consider these two versions of a paragraph of text. Each includes the same facts, but uses different ways of presenting them. Can you spot the instances of simple past tense (4 places), simple present tense (up to 10 places), and present perfect tense (3 places)?
Paragraph Version 1:
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).
Paragraph Version 2:
Many studies have shown that eating fruit is good for you (e.g. Browne et al. 1978; Jones et al. 1982; King and Johnson 1984). However, some authors (e.g. Whyte and Greene 1986; Linden et al. 1988) have debated the optimal quantities and proportions of each type of fruit. Smythe et al. (1992) have shown that apples are the best source of iron, and Davidson (1963) reported that oranges have the highest vitamin C content. However, Orchard et al. (1972) argued that eating mangos too often could have negative effects on overall health, and Vintner (1987) said the same of grapes. Emdee et al. (2007) even suggested that overconsumption of these fruits can lead to the development of intolerances.
Can you spot the differences between these two paragraphs? Almost all of them relate to the use of different tenses when reporting previous findings. For example, after reading the opening sentence of Version 1, how do you feel about eating fruit in general — do you believe that it is for you, or are you not sure yet? Does this change when you read Version 2? What about
apples in particular — which version makes you feel that they are definitely a good source of iron?
When I read Version 1, I am confident that eating fruit is good for me, and that apples are the best source of iron. However, when I read Version 2, I’m not as sure; although the evidence that fruit is good for me comes from several studies, it seems to be something that is still being debated. I’m even less sure about apples being the best source of iron; after all, only one study
seems to have shown that.
This chapter will review these differences in detail, and in doing so introduce you to some of the techniques you can use to be more persuasive and expressive in your Introduction
Introduction vs. Literature Review: one and the same thing?
In this chapter, I repeatedly refer to both the Introduction Section and the literature review. It may seem that I use the terms interchangeably, but although they overlap, they are not synonymous.
The Introduction Section is the first section of the main text of an article, and it typically contains both a literature review and a statement about the current study.
The literature review gives the necessary background to the present study by reviewing previously published papers that set the context. It covers what has been found out and what we do not yet know, i.e. the gaps in current knowledge. It usually particularly highlights the gap in knowledge that the present study attempts to fill. Some of the background may include an ongoing debate between different research groups in the field.
The statement about the current study is at minimum a statement of the aims and/or hypotheses of the study. Some papers also include a brief summary of the main approaches and findings of the study here (although many journals discourage this practice).
Some elements of the literature review may be more appropriately included in the Discussion Section than in the Introduction. Although the studies might be mentioned briefly in the Introduction, their specific findings might be discussed and compared alongside the present
study’s findings in detail in the Discussion.
In this chapter, I will mainly address issues of tense in the literature review specifically, and will focus less on tense in the statement, since that is usually much less complicated. Since you may wish to include some aspects of your literature review in your Discussion Section, though, you should also consider the points in this chapter when you write your Discussion Section.