getting tense about tense

In a recent comment to this blog someone asked me if I had any tips on managing tense. They found themselves, they said, wandering around in time as they wrote, meandering from present to past and back again, undertaking an involuntary kind of time travel and compelling their reader to do the same.

Now tense is a very tricky topic. And the question I got was even more tricky because it is actually two questions in one – what are the rules about tense, and how can I make sure that I follow them.

Thesis Whisperer had a post on tense some time ago, also in response to a question, so this is clearly something of an issue. Like TW, I also went scurrying off to the writing books to see if I could find anything helpful, and just like her, couldn’t find a great deal other than explanations of what particular tenses are called and how they are used ‘correctly’ (1). But the question that TW and I were both asked was not about ordinary speech but about academic writing and simple grammar advice was hardly sufficient.

More helpfully, Brian Paltridge and Sue Starfield in their book Thesis writing in a second language (2007) do talk about tense in relation to literature reviews. They suggest that:
(1) a simple present tense is used when a generalisation is being made, a reference is being made to the current state of knowledge, or previous findings are being presented/accepted as fact
(2) a simple past tense is used when reference is being made to a single study or a specific piece of research and its findings are being referred to
(3) present perfect tense is used when a general area of investigation of inquiry is being referred to or a general statement is made about previous research. (p 109)

But going back to the one/ two questions I was asked, what are the conventions, and are there any tips for following them, I can only offer a response about conventions. I do have a bit of a sense however, that if you know the conventions then that’s at least a start to keeping track of where you are.

The first and most unhelpful part of the answer to the conventions question is that they vary by discipline and so it’s important to check out the convention in your particular area. However, disciplinary conventions are also affected by epistemological/methodological considerations and it may very well be the case that there isn’t a simple/single convention in your field, but rather a mix of practices.

Tense was something I thought about a lot during my own PhD (social science, but also strongly arts informed as well). I was hyper-aware of the thesis as a representation both of my interpretation as well as of particular people and sites. I had to work out in my own mind which tense best represented each of these.

I decided on the following set of personal tense rules (and I still follow these):

Abstract and Introduction: Present tense. This thesis presents… because it was a snapshot of my current thinking at the time of writing. However I used past tense (often past progressive) when referring to my field work.. so The data on which this thesis draws was generated (time, place, who how) and analysed ( succinct details). When referring to the text, I used present ( often present progressive) tense – The thesis is organised into eight chapters etc.

Literatures –which in my case went over two chapters of history and policy – also used a mix of tenses. When I was talking about the literatures as I understood and was using them, I used the present (or present progressive depending whether I was writing in the active or passive voice) tense, because this represented my current thinking and my actions. So – the literatures on poverty fall into x overlapping groups into.. .. However when discussing specific people and texts I used the past tense to show that their work was conducted at a specific time/place – so Bourdieu drew on his own experience as a French school boy… .

Methods writing – again I used a mix of present and past tense – when discussing my understandings of epistemology, methodology and methods, and this was pretty extensive in my case, because I combined three approaches and had to justify it, I used present tense – often present progressive. Narrative theory is based on.. I used past tense to talk about particular people and texts, and to talk about what I had actually done in my research. I interviewed thirty six.. I wrote in past tense because I’d done it, and wasn’t still doing it.

Reporting the findings. This is the place where there can be quite marked differences of opinion within disciplines. That’s the case in my own field, where there is no agreement about tense (other than making sure the subject and verb agree that is, sorry, a very bad grammar joke).

I was happy to write about my analysis as something current – as in the dominant media discourse about poverty features …(ditto the answers to these survey questions suggest) – because these interpretations were my state of thinking at the time of writing. But I was not happy to write about the people I’d persuaded to be in my research project in the present tense. I wanted to represent them and their places as existing in a particular moment in time/space, not as living in some kind of continual research present, always fixed and unmoving like corpses in a mausoleum. I wanted to infer via my writing that people and places may well have changed since my involvement. So I wrote about them in the past.. the school was, local government officers were.. In saying this, I don’t want to suggest that writing in the present is wrong, but it was wrong for me – I had methodological reasons for choosing not to write in the present.

Discussion and conclusions followed the same kinds of tense pattern I had set up at the outset of the thesis – present or present progressive when it was my interpretation – except when I wanted to anticipate some kind of consequence, or talk about things that might have happened and then I used future, present or past perfect tense as appropriate. Again, if I explained the thinking of any particular person and text, I used the past tense.

Now I’ve laboriously gone through my own thinking about my own thesis here not because I think this is the only way to deal with tense or that my interpretations are superior. Far from it. I’ve spelled this out only to illustrate that the choice of tense is not simply a matter of being correct or even of fitting the conventions of the discipline. I’m proposing that knowing what you want to do about tense is first of all a matter of thinking about how you want to make tense work – for a particular part of the text, in line with your explicitly considered overall approach to the text and to the research. My hunch is that it might help to keep track to try to sort out your own rules about tense.

So Steve, I’m not sure that’s an answer. I’m sure there is much more to say… if anyone has any neat tips/hacks for keeping track of tense, other than being clear about your own interpretation of the disciplinary conventions and the methodological choices you’ve made, then please add them via the comments below. Both Steve and I will be grateful.

(1) see for example the grammar approach here.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, grammar, literature review, methodology, methods chapter, tense, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to getting tense about tense

  1. mountaingirl says:

    Thank you, thank you. This is clearly laid out and am going to try and following your logic and tips.

  2. Hello,
    I’d like to offer an alternative to thinking of tense as a ‘convention’ and suggest that we think of it as a ‘choice’ in the Hallidayian sense of systemic functional linguistics. When we see tense as a choice, we can begin to see that it can function as a way for us to communicate our stance (or voice). For example, modality can communicate to the reader that we are tentatively (or modestly) coming to some kind of conclusion (‘This might suggest’/’We could argue that’) or it can be used rhetorically to hypothesise (as in ‘If we were to consider’).
    Similarly, the simple aspect (both present and past) can be used to communicate that we think something is a fact (either as a premise or as the result of robust argumentation), even if others might not agree that it is a fact.
    In the humanities and social sciences, the use of the present simple is a very strong indicator of writer stance because, arguably, everything is arguable, and therefore a writer who does opt for the present simple is taking a clear position. When we view tense as a choice, we also begin to see how it is a conduit for projecting the Self (the writer) that we want the Other (the reader) to see.
    Julia (from an EAP – English for Academic Purposes – perspective)

    • pat thomson says:

      Yes, that is helpfully complementary to the notion of sorting out why we want to use particular tenses taken from a methodological point of view. The idea of convention is of course linked to that of discourse communities and New Literacy Studies, it is also about supporting choice, not rules.

  3. ….oh…and also, the very fact that we have an active and passive ‘voice’, I think reflects the fact that we have choices beyond tense to make. Both the passive and active are ‘correct’, but when we favour one over the other we are taking a stance.


    • pat thomson says:

      Absolutely. Barbara Kamler and I have most of a chapter in our doc writing book about active and passive voice and how to make decisions about which to use, and Helen Sword also has a lot to say about this.

  4. Ben says:

    SO HELPFUL! Thanks very much Pat…I have been thinking about this as I hit the final 6 month stretch of the thesis.

  5. Steven Watson says:

    Thank you very much for this thoughtful piece on tense. It is/was/will be very useful. I have to explain that on a couple of occasions readers (supervisors and journal reviewers) have questioned the way I have used tense. As a result, I have been puzzling about it. I was most interested in the fact that Pat devised her own set of conventions – which seems very sensible. It also prompted me to think that I might have a ‘use of language’ section in my PhD thesis to make plain my conventions and to give me the chance to think about it for myself. I think therefore, the answer I take from this is to consider some existing conventions in the field and decide on my own system.

    I am also aware that there are some related issues – voice: passive or active and the use of the personal pronoun (or not). These carry with them – as does the use of tense – theoretical ‘baggage’. Usage represents a particular epistemological and ontological stance. I think I have heard the conventional way of dealing with this is to decide on your position and stick with it or obey the conventions of your field or discipline or the practices of the publication you are writing for. If I were to take more interpretivist position, I would be ‘I’, the active voice in the present tense – subjective, relativistic and contingent. Alternatively, I could find myself being more positivist. There would be a passive voice, impersonal pronouns, past tense: certain, objective and remote from the person conducting the research. Again, I find myself drifting between these two camps as I write, feeling tentative and subjective and then drifting toward more certain, more absolute passive scientific usage. But I know what Pat will say to this – I think – read the Kamler and Thompson book (which I have just downloaded to my Kindle).

    Thank you again, Patter is a really useful resource for me as a student of (academic) writing.

  6. Pingback: Some tips about writing – especially tenses | Evolutionspsykologi Lund

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