Verb Tenses – General
Use of the correct verb tense allows you to express clearly the time relationships among your ideas. When deciding which verb tense to use, aim for consistency, simplicity, and clarity. Whenever possible, keep verbs in the same tense (consistency), and use either the simple present or the past tense (simplicity). Above all, choose the verb tense that most clearly expresses the idea you want to convey (clarity). In general, use the present tense to describe actions and states of being that are still true in the present; use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past.
The guidelines below are a great place to start for general information on how to use tense across many disciplines. For more details on discipline-specific conventions, see handouts “Verb Tenses—Literature” and “Verb Tenses—Science.”
Use the present tense to make generalizations about your topic or the views of scholars:
- The two Indus artifacts provide insight into ancient Hindu culture.
- Marxist historians argue that class conflict shapes political affairs.
- At the end of the chorus, the sopranos repeat the main theme.
Use the present tense to cite an author or source (except in science writing, where past tense is used): (Note: Whether or not the author is still living is not relevant to selection of tense!)
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 reflects the idealism of the Second World War.
- The historian Donna Harsch states that "Social Democrats tried to prevent the triumph of Nazism in order to save the republic and democracy" (3).
- In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argues that democratic ideals may lead to the so-called “tyranny of the majority.”
Use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past:
- Hemingway drew on his experiences in World War I to construct the character of Jake Barnes.
- We completed the interviews in January 2018.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Present and Past Tense Together
At times you will use both present and past tense to show shifts in time relationships. Use present tense for those ideas/observations that are considered timeless and past tense for actions occurring in the past:
- The Padshahnama is an ancient manuscript owned by the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. This manuscript details the history of Shah-Jahan, the Muslim ruler who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal (Webb et al. 134).
- Flynn (1999) concluded that high school students are more likely to smoke cigarettes if they have a parent who smokes.
- Simon (2000) observed that neutered cats spend less time stalking their prey.