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Tense of English Verbs in Different Parts of A Scientific Article

One of the concerns of the researchers writing in English is choosing the correct tense for the verbs. In many scholarly journals, the editorial staff considers using the correct tense to be one of the most important aspects of academic writing.

How to Choose the Tense of English Verbs in Different Parts of A Scientific Article?

Moreover, the verb tense in always mentioned in the guidelines of different journals. We will review the tense of the verbs in the rest of the article.

First of all, we will briefly discuss the verb tenses in English. In general, the verb tense reflects the time of an event: the past tense indicates that the action is finished; the present tense indicates that the action is taking place; and the future tense indicates that the action will take place in the future. Besides, the verbs can be in the present perfect, past perfect, or the future perfect, where the action occurs at a particular point in time. In this article, we have examined the tense of English verbs in various parts of academic papers.

Verb Tenses in the Article Title

In many journals, we do not need to write the full title of the article. Also it is not necessary to use verbs. If you want to write a complete sentence, use the present simple term to describe the conclusions of the article. For example:

“Gene X is required for intestinal cell differentiation”

“Frameshift mutations in gene X cause abnormal notochord development in zebrafish”

Verb Tenses in the Abstract of the Article

The verb tenses in the “abstract” section should be commensurate with the section that the sentence refers to. The initial sentences describe the present situation of the subject. So they should be in simple present. For referring to previous research we can use present perfect. Methods and results should be in simple past.

Verb Tenses in the Introduction of the Article

The introduction often includes different tenses, each defining a different time frame for an event. If what you are talking about is widely accepted, simple present is the best choice. For example:

“DNA is composed of four nucleotides.”

“Trypanosomes exhibit global trans-splicing of RNA transcripts.”

  • Simple present tense shows that the written phrase reflects a common understanding of the subject under discussion.
  • Some introductions include sentences that refer to previous research. But when referring to a study whose results are still acceptable, use the present perfect tense. This tense shows that although the study has been done in the past, the results are still valid.

“Johnson et al. have shown that gene X is part of an operon.”

“Unusual glycosylation events have been observed in these cells.”

  • In the examples above, the use of present perfect is acceptable because the research or observation has occurred in the past, but the results are still valid. We use this tense also when something has started in the past and is still going on:

“Patients with XYZ syndrome have been surveyed for the past ten years.”

  • Sometimes the subject is a research, study, table, or figure. For example, “The figure shows” or “The research suggests”. Published papers are still available to readers (such as movies or books). In fact, the article is narrating the results to the audience. So that is why we use the simple present. Consider the following examples. These studies have been conducted in the past, but when we talk about them, we use the simple present:

“The results of their study indicate that the drug is highly effective.”

“A landmark paper from Smith’s lab describes the discovery of this new organelle.”

  • Besides, when referring specifically to the methods used in past articles, simple past is the best option. For example, we can say:

“Smith and Anderson sampled 96 swamps and found 156 distinct dragonfly species.”

“Gene X was first cloned into a shuttle vector in 2003.”

  • Likewise, statements that are no longer correct should be expressed with a simple past:

“Bacteria were believed to lack introns.”

“Early physicists thought that electrons traveled in defined orbits.”

  • Sometimes a combination of tenses is used:

“Robert Corey suggested [Simple Past] that DNA contained three helices, but subsequent work has proved [Present Perfect] the existence of a double-helix structure.”

Verb Tenses in the Methods of the Article

In the methods section, we describe what has happened during the study. So it is better to use the simple past tense for verbs.


How to Choose the Tense of English Verbs in Different Parts of A Scientific Article?(2)

“We tested independently derived cultures for resistance to trimethoprim.”

“Cells were transfected, irradiated, and assayed for DNA damage.”

When one action occurs before another, we use the past perfect tense for the former action and the simple past for the latter.

 “The cells that had been irradiated [Past Perfect] were assayed Simple Past] for DNA damage” and “Patients who had elected [Past Perfect] to undergo surgery completed [Simple Past] questionnaires.”

Sometimes, when one action occurs at the same time as another one, it is better to use the past continuous:

 “while the cells were incubating [Past Continuous], the temperature was raised [Simple Past] 1°C per hour” or “while patients were preparing [Past Continuous] for surgery, nurses collected [Simple Past] baseline samples”

Verb Tenses in the Results of the Article

The researcher has carried out experiments and tests when the article was not yet completed. The results have also been obtained in the past. So for the results section, we mainly use the past tense.

“We detected no fluorescence in the control sample.”

“All participants reported a significant reduction in pain.”

In certain cases, it is better to use the simple present. As we explained earlier in the part on introduction, when referring to the whole article or a detail of the article (figures, tables, different sections of the article, results, or data), we can use the simple present.

“Our results demonstrate that magnesium is essential for enzymatic function.”

“Figure 1 shows our fluorescence data.”

“In this study, we report the discovery of a new species of frog.”

Remember that sometimes we can use two different tenses in a single sentence:

“Because no enzymatic activity was detected [Simple Past] in the absence of magnesium, our results indicate [Simple Present] that magnesium is [Simple Present] absolutely required.”

In the above sentence, the tense of the last verb is a simple present. It is because the author believes that the conclusion is a general rule.

Verb Tenses in the Discussion of the Article

The “Discussion” section follows the same rule as the other sections of the article. If you are referring to specific results or methods, use the simple past. If you are presenting the result of the article, use simple present:

 “We conclude that gene X is dispensable for ornithine synthesis.”

But, the discussion may also include future tense. If you are making suggestions for future studies, you can use the future tense:

“the methods reported here will allow for rapid screening in the field”

“we will publish the full results of our screen as part of another study.”

Amir Masoud Sefidian
Amir Masoud Sefidian
Data Scientist, Researcher, Software Developer

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