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Overview of verb tenses and APA recommendations for tense usage in academic writing

English verbs have:

  • Two voices: active and passive
  • Three moods: indicative, subjunctive, imperative
  • Two tenses and one time (in the indicative mood): past and present (tenses), future (time)
  • Four aspects (in the indicative mood): simple, progressive, perfect, perfect progressive 

Note: Most examples provided for each characteristic of English verbs were extracted from Runeson and Host (2009) as well as APA (2010). A few examples were created by us at Ontario Tech University.

Active and passive voice

Examples:

We chose a semi-structured approach (active).

A semi-structured approach was chosen (passive). 

Note:

Most of the time we use the active voice in speaking. APA recommends that we use the active voice in academic writing as much as possible.

The passive is most frequently used when it is not important to know exactly who performs an action or when the speaker or writer wants to focus attention “on the recipient of the action rather than on the actor” (p. 77).

Indicative, subjunctive, and imperative mood

Examples:

The purpose of this paper is to provide guidance for the researcher conducting case studies (indicative).

Be mindful of APA formatting, style and usage issues! (imperative)

If the experiment were not designed this way, the results could not be interpreted properly (subjunctive).

Note:

Most of the time, in both speaking and writing, we use the indicative mood. For example, to ask questions and make factual statements.

When we want to express commands and requests, however, we use the imperative mood.

When we want to express recommendations, conditions, and situations that are contrary to fact, we use the subjunctive mood. APA suggests we pay attention to the correct usage of the subjunctive mood in academic writing. The difference between the subjunctive and the indicative form of the verb is in the simple present tense third person singular (which does not take ‘–s’ in the subjunctive mood) and in the verb to be (which remains ‘be’ in the present for all persons and becomes ‘were’ in the past for all persons).

Past, present, and future in the indicative mood

Examples:

Evaluation feedback identified a need for a more condensed checklist for readers and reviewers (past).

The understanding of what constitutes a case study varies (present).

A case study will never provide conclusions with statistical significance (future).

Simple, progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive aspects in the indicative mood

Examples:

Case study is a suitable research methodology for software engineering research (simple).

The acceptance of empirical studies in software engineering and their contributions to increasing knowledge is continuously growing (progressive).

We have found interviews, observations, archival data and metrics being applicable to software engineering case studies (perfect).

For the past few years, researchers have been investigating the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering (perfect progressive).

Note:

There are twelve combinations of tenses and aspects in the indicative mood:

  • The simple present: Researchers investigate the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The simple past: Researchers investigated the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The simple future: Researchers will investigate the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The present progressive: Researchers are investigating the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The past progressive: researchers were investigating the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The future progressive: Researchers will be investigating the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The present perfect: Researchers have investigated the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The past perfect: Researchers had investigated the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The future perfect: Researchers will have investigated the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The present perfect progressive: Researchers have been investigating the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The past perfect progressive: Researchers had been investigating the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.
  • The future perfect progressive: Researchers will have been investigating the effectiveness of the use of case studies in engineering.

The most commonly used verb tenses in academic writing, however, are the simple present, simple past, present perfect, and simple future tenses.

APA (2010) says that, in an academic paper:

  • The simple past tense or present perfect tense is appropriate for the literature review and the description of the procedure if the discussion is of past events (pp. 65-66).
  • The simple past tense is appropriate to describe the results (p. 66).
  • The simple present tense is appropriate to discuss implications of the results and to present the conclusions (p. 66).

Note: For more information on verb tenses, see the overview of past tenses, present tenses, and future times pages.

References

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Azar, B. S.; & Hagen, S. A. (2009). Understanding and Using English Grammar (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Regents.

Runeson, P., & Host, M. (2009). Guidelines for conducting and reporting case study research in software engineering. Empire Software Eng., 14, 131–164. DOI 10.1007/s10664-008-9102-8