Tackling Inconsistent Verb Tenses in Academic Writing

Academic writing demands precision, clarity, and consistency. Nowhere is this more important than in the use of verb tenses. Shifting randomly from past to present to future tense can confuse readers and undermine the authority of the writer. Yet inconsistent verb tense remains a common error in academic prose.

In academic writing, ensuring consistent verb tenses throughout your paper is crucial for maintaining clarity and coherence, and if you encounter challenges, remember that there’s a writing service for you from StateOfWriting that can provide expert guidance to help you conquer this issue. With vigilance and practice, however, writers can break the habit of unintentional tense changes and maintain coherence. This post will examine why verb tense matters in academic writing, illustrate common errors, and offer tips to achieve consistent verb usage.

Why Verb Tense Matters

Unlike conversational English, academic writing relies heavily on the third-person perspective. The author’s arguments and findings are grounded not in personal experience but in objective facts and observations. Proper verb tense helps establish this impersonal tone.

Beyond style, verb tense impacts the meaning conveyed. Consider the subtle difference between these two sentences:

“Smith argued that compressing glacier ice causes it to melt.”

“Smith argues that compressing glacier ice causes it to melt.”

The first sentence places Smith’s argument firmly in the past; the second suggests his view may still represent current thinking on glacier melt. This distinction can shape how readers understand and evaluate the author’s work.

Using tense precisely also enables concise expression. For example, the present perfect tense cleanly conveys an action that began in the past but continues or repeats:

“Researchers have studied this artifact since 2003.”

Trying to express the same idea without the present perfect requires cumbersome syntax:

“Researchers studied this artifact in 2003, and they continue to study it now.”

Overall, control and intentionality with verb tense improves the rigor and sophistication of academic writing.

Common Errors

Many factors contribute to inconsistent verb tense. Writers may lose track of the implicit timeframe during lengthy text. Or they may lack understanding of the nuances between tenses. Some of the most frequent errors include:

1. Unnecessary tense shifts

Sometimes writers change tense for no discernible reason:

“Smith hypothesized that sea levels rose due to thermal expansion of ocean water. This hypothesis challenges previous assumptions. Scientists have demonstrated that melting glaciers also contribute to sea level rise.”

There is no need to shift to past tense in the second sentence. Maintaining the present tense throughout would clarify the hypothesis and evidence remain applicable:

“Smith hypothesizes that sea levels rise due to thermal expansion of ocean water. This hypothesis challenges previous assumptions. Scientists demonstrate that melting glaciers also contribute to sea level rise.”

2. Inaccurate tense selection

Writers often choose the wrong tense for the context. For example:

“The population expanded rapidly during the Baby Boom era. In 1957, the growth peaks when births surpass 4.3 million.”

The second sentence describes a historical event and should use the past tense:

“The population expanded rapidly during the Baby Boom era. In 1957, the growth peaked when births surpassed 4.3 million.”

3. Inconsistent tense lists

Academic writing frequently employs lists to summarize ideas and evidence. Writers must maintain consistent tense in lists just as in ordinary prose. For instance:

“Factors contributing to poor sleep include: stress, excessive caffeine, and watching television before bedtime.”

The list starts in present tense but shifts pointlessly to past for the last item. Using present tense throughout sharpens the writing:

“Factors contributing to poor sleep include: stress, excessive caffeine, and watching television before bedtime.”

Achieving Consistent Verb Tense

Achieving a polished academic paper involves addressing the issue of inconsistent verb tenses, and if you ever find this task daunting, seeking professional assistance with do my homework services can ensure that your writing maintains a consistent and professional tone. Mastering verb tense takes time and practice. But writers can adopt strategies to avoid unintentional shifting:

1. Establish the timeframe

Before writing, determine the intended timeframe. Writing in past tense about historical events? Or in present tense about prevailing theories? Decide on the predominant tense and time period, then stick to it.

2. Use time markers

Time markers like “currently” or “in 1957” can help orient readers and remind you of the intended timeframe. Include these cues frequently when describing events and discoveries.

3. Review with verb tense in mind

Actively look for consistency during the editing process. Scan for unintentional shifts in tense as you would for wordiness or passive voice. An editing pass focused just on verb tense can catch many oversights.

4. Learn the meanings of tense forms

Simply put, understand what each tense conveys about time. Learn the difference between past progressive (“was researching”) and simple past (“researched”), for example. Resources like Purdue OWL can supplement classroom learning.

5. Use online tools judiciously

Word processors flag some incorrect tense usage. But these grammar checkers have limitations. Use them to spot potential errors, then evaluate each individually. The tool doesn’t consider context and nuance like human editors can.

With attentiveness and practice, academic writers can break the tense inconsistency habit. Keeping verb tense precise takes conscious effort, but pays dividends in the rigor and care conveyed by your work. Avoiding unintentional shifting leads readers smoothly through the complex ideas, discoveries, and arguments you present.

Examples of Good and Bad Verb Tense Usage

Below are excerpts of academic writing with inconsistent and improved verb tense:

Example 1

Inconsistent:

Genetic analysis suggests domestic cats trace ancestry to the Near Eastern wildcat. Cats were first domesticated in the Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered cat bones among ancient human settlements in Cyprus dating 8,000 years in the past. Researchers believe migrating human populations introduced domestic cats to Europe by 4,000 BCE. Formal cat breeds and pedigrees emerge much more recently, in the 19th century.

Improved:

Genetic analysis suggests domestic cats trace ancestry to the Near Eastern wildcat. Cats were first domesticated in the Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered cat bones among ancient human settlements in Cyprus dating 8,000 years in the past. Researchers believe migrating human populations introduced domestic cats to Europe by 4,000 BCE. Formal cat breeds and pedigrees emerged much more recently, in the 19th century.

Example 2

Inconsistent:

Chopin’s Études express musical emotions and effects ranging from joyous excitement to haunting melancholy. Each of the twelve piano works has a descriptive title like “Tristesse” or “Wind Over the Plain”. She composed the collection in the 1830s while living in Paris after emigrating from Poland. Performers note technical challenges reflecting her concert pianist expertise. Yet music scholars described structural unity across the set through related keys and motifs. Her innovations influence composers like Debussy and Rachmaninoff.

Improved:

Chopin’s Études expressed musical emotions and effects ranging from joyous excitement to haunting melancholy. Each of the twelve piano works had a descriptive title like “Tristesse” or “Wind Over the Plain”. She composed the collection in the 1830s while living in Paris after emigrating from Poland. Performers note technical challenges reflecting her concert pianist expertise. Yet music scholars describe structural unity across the set through related keys and motifs. Her innovations influenced composers like Debussy and Rachmaninoff.

Conclusion

Verb tense is a small but vital component of academic style. Mastery comes with knowledge of the nuances between tense forms and consistent application. By establishing timeframes, utilizing time markers, and reviewing with tense choices in mind, writers can produce sophisticated, cohesive work. Precise and deliberate tense usage demonstrates respect for readers and care for the ideas presented.