How to Use Present Tense in an Academic Essay
Academic essays showcase students’ abilities to present their thoughts on a topic in an organized manner. What tense should be used in academic essays is a topic that sparks debate among some people. It is sometimes appropriate to use the present tense in academics if it is executed properly.
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The present tense conveys what is happening now. However, the present tense can also be used to convey future times as well as past times, depending on the form of the present tense used. It may also convey habitual, ongoing or constant actions. Various forms of the present tense exist. The present simple tense describes present activities, facts, universal truths, habits, permanent situations, arrangements, narrations and events that are certain to happen (e.g. “I decide.”) The present perfect tense conveys actions that happened at an unknown time before the present, actions in the past that have an effect on the present and actions that began in the past and continue into the present (e.g. “I have decided.”) The present continuous tense expresses actions that are happening at the moment of speaking, such as tendencies or trends (e.g. “I am deciding.”) Finally, the present perfect continuous conveys actions that started in the past and continue in the present, actions that have recently stopped and temporary actions. (e.g. “I have been deciding.”)
The present tense is more appropriate for certain academic subjects than others. For example, the present is acceptable for science papers that deal with facts that are applicable to all time. It is also ideal for literary papers when the writer is describing actions in a literary work. However, it might not be as appropriate for history papers in which past actions are discussed. Within the humanities, it is generally best to use the present tense. Many academic essays center around research, so using the correct present tense can convey the status of the research to the readers. For example, the present perfect tense implies that the research is generally accepted and also currently relevant.
The formatting style of the academic essay also influences whether or not the present tense is acceptable. For example, the MLA style sheet prefers present tense for papers as well as in citations. The APA style sheet calls for the writer to use either the present perfect tense or the past tense. However, the Chicago Manual of Style prefers the past tense for academic essays.
Consistency is important in academic essays. If an essay began with the present tense, then it should generally use the present tense throughout the entire essay. This is not to say that it is never appropriate to switch tenses in academic essays, because it is necessary when the time frame switches from the present to the past. For example, when discussing a literary work, a writer might use the present tense, but then switch to the past tense to discuss the author of the work.
How to Use Present and Past Tense in Essays
If you’re writing about fiction, TV, and other stories, especially time-shifting tales, it can be tricky figuring out whether to use present tense or past tense. We have help!
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Tense is almost always an issue and this is sad. Here is a tissue. What tense should you write in? The answer is mystifying but it can be absorbed, I promise. Be flexible:
You should always write in the past tense when you are speaking of a historical event, that’s obvious.
Write in the present tense when you are writing about events in a story such as a novel or TV show.
You should always write in the present tense when you are speaking of a text, any text, and for many people this is the tricky part. However, this idea is essential: whatever is happening in a text is happening forever, the action is never finished. The man and his daughter in “American Gothic” didn’t used to stand together with the pitchfork, right? because you don’t look at the painting and find them gone to the fair, they stand in the painting together. They stand there forever. She never gets married, he never smokes his pipe and looks at the moon. The kiddos on “Lost” are on the island (unless they’re not, we’ll talk about this in a minute) and this is not only because the show is time-warped. Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole each time you reach that page, right? The words, images, and sounds found in a text are eternal, what else would explain the healthy ego of the artist, high on the drug of creating such infinite gestures?
Consider Alice again. If you are presenting an argument about the repressed female psyche in “Alice in Wonderland,” you might describe the opening scene on the grass (in the present-tense) with statements such as, “Alice sits on the grass, its well-manicured ridges representing the restrictions of Victorian life,” or “Alice sees a rabbit in the painful throes of a procrastination addiction and she follows him down. ” Alice is always seeing the rabbit, she is always following him, forever and ever amen.
It’s more complicated when you’re writing about events that happened in the past in the novel relative to the current time in the novel.
Now for the advanced note on this subject, put on your thinking cap: While the major rule is to always discuss texts in the present tense, the minor rule is that there is such a thing as the past tense of the text, for example, in a chronological text if you were referencing an event that takes place on page 213, whatever happened on page 50 would be discussed in the past tense. If you are presenting an argument about Alice’s later adventures, “much to her alarm, Alice’s body fills up the house,” but want to speak to a historical event in the novel, you would employ the past tense, “much to her alarm, Alice’s body fills up the house in a way never imagined back on the grassy knoll.” In a text that jumps around chronologically, you have to speak to the text’s present moment in the present and everything else in the past, and if you want to dive deeper into that special circle of hell, please review episodes of “Lost,” any version of “Dr. Who,” or ask Hermione.
Super jeopardy comes when we discuss a text that references a historical event. You’ll have to be clear which, the text or the history, you are referencing (and if you are referencing the history, you’ll still need a source to cite unless the information you share is considered common knowledge) and share that clarity with your audience.
Tupelo Hassman is the author of “gods with a little g,” and also teaches composition at Santa Monica College and California State University, East Bay. She uses Grammar Girl in her classroom and shared this advice she gives to students about how to use tense in essays.