The tense debate

Last week my friend and PhD student @tokenlefty emailed me to ask:

“When writing literature reviews, does one use past tense or present tense?  ie: Sorensen examined the potential for .. or: Sorensen examines the potential for

I wrote back:

“I prefer present tense because it implies an active conversation. Unless the author is dead, mc dead dead and everyone knows it. Even then there’s dead and Really Dead.”

Which didn’t make much sense when I read it back to myself. In my defense I was kind of busy and @tokenlefty is accustomed to getting cryptic emails from me. Then I had a thought – is this just the way I do it? Is there a ‘correct’ way to do tense that I was not aware of? As I looked into the issue, it was surprisingly complex and I decided it needed a post on its own.

The usual advice it to pick a tense and stick to it throughout your thesis. I like present tense – most of the time. For me the use of present tense implies that a scholarly conversation is going on Right Now, and that you are commenting on it (much like a cricket game). The Scholarly Conversation may have been going on for some decades – but that is still Right Now in an academic sense. Besides I have read many times that using present tense is one way to have an ‘active’ voice in your writing – which makes your thesis an easier read.

I do ‘break the rules’ and use past tense alongside present tense, usually for rhetorical purpose. For instance, like many other disciplines, the research field I work in (education) has a heritage of ideas.  I will still routinely use present tense to refer to people who ‘grandfathered’ the ideas which I am using (sorry for the gendering there, but unfortunately they are all men). I learned this from my colleague and philosopher Dr Robyn Barnacle, who argues that although people die, their ideas live on. Following this logic I use past tense to talk about dead ideas – even if the people who wrote about them are still living. There is however the ‘dead mc dead dead’ category, which I reserve for people like Socrates and Aristotle: some of their ideas are so fundamental they have never died, but to refer to them in present tense would be, well – kind of weird.

But. Should I be recommending this approach to someone in an entirely different field to me? As the Explorations in Style blog said in a post about using resources this week, we should be careful of any kind of ‘universalizing’ advice when it comes to doing a thesis. I agree with this wholeheartedly; disciplinary context matters. As Howard Becker pointed out: we all have an ‘academic accent’ in our writing which marks us as members of a certain tribe. Learning to develop this accent is part of the reason for doing a PhD in the first place.

With this in mind I raised the issue of tense on Twitter. Immediately I got back multiple points of view and rationales for various practices.It seems there are, as I feared, multiple practices and points of view on ‘the right way’. Scientists, on the whole, seemed to think passive voice was preferable, while the humanities preferred present tense. The debate generated such interest that Andy Coverdale wrote an entry on his blog clarifying the social science position.

I still didn’t have an answer for this blog, which tries to cater to all disciplines. So I tried to get clarity by consulting with the oracles, i.e.: all my ‘go to’ texts on writing a thesis which you can see in the photo. I’m sorry to say, most of them let me down. In “Helping Doctoral students to Write” by Kamler and Thomson there is an excellent discussion on active voice and passive voice (chapter seven). This seemed, from close reading, to back up what I am saying. But again, this is written for a social science / educational audience.

Facing a dead end, I emailed my back up oracle, and fellow research education nerd, Dr Judy Maxwell at the Study and Learning Centre here at RMIT, who spends most of her days teaching scientists about grammar. Judy confirmed that the debate about which tense to use is a hot topic amongst research students and confirmed that there isn’t one authoritative text on it. She noted that there is “a general feeling among science/engineering students that the past tense is always used”.

Like me, Judy doesn’t like the use of past tense, but for a different reason. She pointed out that there’s the potential for ambiguity: does the person you’re citing still think the same way, or has she/he moved on? Judy tells me, however, that when she presents this point of view to science/engineering researchers they don’t see it as a problem, she thinks this stems from:

“… the way the hard/technical sciences generally talk about the literature – they’re usually more interested in the actual research rather than what was found, which is generally the opposite of social sciences, where what was found, and who found it, is more important. This is probably why author/date systems such as APA and Harvard and more author-prominent citations are used in these areas, compared to Vancouver or footnotes and information-prominent citations are used in hard/physical sciences.”

Usually Judy’s answer for questions about writing style (and mine) is to refer students to journal articles and theses in their discipline. But, as Judy and I talked, we wondered if this is good advice. We don’t want to promote replicating present practice if the practice itself is questionable. Just like the Greeks still built stone temples like they were wood temples, we can hang onto ways of doing things long beyond their use by date: especially, I would argue, in academia.

As so often happens, I am left with more questions than answers (but you guys don’t read this blog for simplistic answers right?!). Clearly there’s the potential for choice here; maybe talking about it more will help you make a decision. So how do you ‘do tense’ in your literature review and why? Have you argued with your supervisor about it? Do you think the argument that “everyone does it this way” is a good enough reason to keep doing it that way?

Related Posts:

The Dead Hand of the thesis genre?

The literature review – knowing when to stop

36 thoughts on “The tense debate

  1. protoscholar says:

    I am in the social sciences (education policy) and used past tense throughout my lit review. The reason was that any published finding was the finding at that point in time. Now that it is a few years later the finding could have changed or been overturned. I don’t want to incorrectly attribute an attitude to someone when, in fact, their mind has been changed. Therefore by using past tense I acknowledge their comment as the way they thought when they wrote it without implying that they still think that way.

    I don’t think I ever talked specifically about this with my adviser, but looking back at the papers we wrote together I notice that he also uses past tense. Therefore I assume I got it from him. But to me it just makes sense. When I read a lit review that talks about things in present tense it is as though it is saying a scientist of any sort can’t change their mind about the interpretation of something when, in fact, I have already changed my mind about a couple of things I published in the past. Science is about fluidity of thought, and casting everything in the present, even if it is easier to read, breaks the flow.

    • M-H says:

      I don’t agree at all that it should all be one thing or the other. For me it is a matter of making sense and, yes, flow. If I’m contributing to an ongoing argument, then I’ll use the present tense to make it clear that the ideas are still accepted as current. If I’m referring to something that has since been superceded I will put it in the past, thus: “Smith and Jones (2003) point out… and White (2007 agrees, adding…, while Green (2005) gives us another viewpoint entirely.”. But “In 1985, Connell wrote… but Black disagreed, writing in 1990… . However, Scarlet (2006) shows us conclusively…”. It’s not a matter of time passed, more of the currency of ideas. I would say “Foucault shows us…” because Foucault is still showing us. But I would also say “Foucault pointed out…” if I were putting him in a list of people who’ve contributed to the development of an idea.

      So it’s not just about tense, it’s about context too.

      • elinahill says:

        I agree with M-H. Further, some things need to be in past tense (e.g., findings) to show that they are captured in time – reflections of only one study (i.e., ‘Patient 1 did not experience pain from the third injection’).

  2. ms.static says:

    …I’m not sure this was meant to be the ‘take away’ from this post, but the way you have narrated your own ‘review’ of various authorities on this issue is very readable and gives a good sense of the ongoing conversations in this micro research journey on the question of tenses. You use a mixture of tenses, past to tell it like a story, with some additional context in present tense to situate sources you refer to. My practice based doctorate does not require a formal literature review, but I am finding increasingly that one needs to be there in some form, if only to orient my readers on the ocean trans/un-disciplinary cross currents that my mongrel field draws on. I had been going for present tense, but now I’m curious if it will make a better story with some past tense…

    • ingermewburn says:

      You’re right: I switch tenses routinely, without thinking about it too much, both in blogs and in academic papers – whatever ‘sounds’ right when I read it back! I am less organised that I represented!

      My rules of thumb, which I talked about in the first paragraph are only loose guidelines in fact. I probably operate much more like Mary-Helen in truth: the decision about tense is a rhetorical one. Paying attention to journal articles in the same ‘mechanical’ way you have with this post is a great way to help you find ‘voice’. When you find an author you like it’s a great way to start to pick apart their style.

      I guess this is why there is no clear ‘take home’ in this post. I think there’s issues which you need to sort through in order to make a decision that’s right for you. Of course – your supervisor may play a big role in this decision while you are doing your thesis. They may be more or less amenable to different approaches…

  3. Anna Sharman says:

    I trained as a biomedical copyeditor since my PhD. I was taught then that, at least in review articles and introductions to papers, currently accepted findings should be in present tense but what experiments were done should be in past tense. For example, “Bloggs et al. used technique X to show that Y happens in all mammalian cells.” A further subtlety is that recent results should be in the perfect tense, for example “In 2009 Bloggs et al. showed X, but this year Smith et al. have found that Y is more common.” I don’t know if this is a universal system in biomedical journals but it seems a good approach to me, including for thesis intros.

  4. Carlotta Shearson says:

    You wrote: “Scientists, on the whole, seemed to think passive voice was preferable, while the humanities preferred present tense…” and “In “Helping Doctoral students to Write” by Kamler and Thomson there is an excellent discussion on active voice and passive voice (chapter seven).”

    Note that the the distinction between passive/active voice has nothing to do with the distinction between past/present tense.

    In the sciences, one generally accepted convention is to use present tense to describe established knowledge (that is, peer-reviewed, published research). In contrast, past tense is used to describe our own current research, which is not presumed to be established knowledge until after it has been reviewed and published. There are several minor exceptions to this rule, which is detailed in Robert A. Day, How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper (5th ed., Oryx Press, 1998, pp. 207-209).

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks for the reference – and pointing out the active and passive voice thing – I am aware of the difference, what I really meant was that they talk about rhetorical purpose in similar ways.

      Would you consider the Day text authorative? Is it widely used amongst editors?

      • Carlotta Shearson says:

        I’m afraid I don’t know how widely used Day is. It is the scientific writing “bible” recommended by my main client, a Japanese editing service for ESL scientists. The head of the service also teaches science writing at a Japanese university, and he uses Day as the text. I’ve been editing in the sciences for about 15 years (1000+ papers, 60+ journals), and I would say that most of my authors follow this style.

        The ACS [American Chemical Society] Style Guide also recommends the same practice, although not as clearly as Day does.

  5. Dean says:

    I think you are right to be sceptical of pointing people to journal articles for style guidance. While there are many good writers, there are just as many — if not more — bad ones, even in the top journals.

  6. Cristina Costa says:

    Hi Inger,
    this is a great post.
    Although this is not my area, students also often ask me about it. I usually refer to it as historical present – using the present tense does make you, as a researcher, to be more connected to the ideas you are reporting. But then again, there is no straight recipe and more often than ever present perfect and even past come into the picture to illustrate things that have been extended until the current times or episodes which occurred at a given time and left a mark. They key is to find that balance, and that is what everyone find extremely challenging because we would like it to be just one way. Yet, I think that is the richness of the narrative: that it transport us through different phases.
    Another thing that I am often confronted with is ‘voice’. Do I write as ‘I’?; do I mention others as you or one?; Does he or she gets transformed into they?… writing is indeed a complicated task…yet a fascinating one. Nothing like having a blog to keep practising.
    thanks for the post

    • Dean says:

      You raise an important point about the use of ‘I’ and ‘one’. It is an interesting point because, for some, the use of ‘I’ and ‘one’ links directly to the question of objectivity (or something approaching objectivity). Some scholars who have given up on objectivity find the use of an impersonal pronoun like ‘one’ merely an attempt to conceal one’s ‘positionality’ and ‘subjectivity’. Admittedly, the use of ‘one’ can seem stilted at times, but I’m not sure ‘I’ is always the best option. I suppose it comes down to taste, disciplinary conventions and perhaps your take on the value and possibility of objective research.

  7. Evan says:

    The world holds its breath as academics ponder the minutiae of research phrasing. Have you ever considered that if you’re worrying about these details that maybe it indicates your research is largely irrelevant anyways?

  8. Leo says:

    I’ve been doing some research on this issue and that’s where I ran into your blog. Thank you for the thoughtful insight on the issue. I can see what you’re saying about the difficulties of past tense. I’m a Philosophy student, and that’s where this came apparent to me, because we talk about dead philosophers in the present tense, e.g. “René Descartes presents his idea of ‘cogito ergo sum’ in which he argues…” etc. I think this is wrong, because Descartes is certifiably dead. The cogito was an idea that he *proposed* during his lifetime. It’s more accurate if you’re talking about the works of Descartes, for example, Meditations argues the cogito, but then that places all of emphasis on the book and not the person. I think that when discussing a philosophical idea it should be written in past tense because it’s an idea that someone thought back then. It won’t necessarily survive up to the present day. Irenaeus presented a theodicy: John Hick agrees with it now, but not everyone else does.

  9. Patrick McGaffin says:

    Dear Thesis Whisperer, is there a blog or website that debates not so much the pros and cons of writing in the present or past tense but mixing tenses in the same narration?
    I have spent 13 years writing a novel. First I wrote it in the past. It was not what I was trying to achieve so I re wrote it in the present. Still didn’t capture what I wanted to convey. So re wrote it in mixed tenses. I am happy with my manuscript now but have received mixed responses – negative from publishers and professional editors.
    Stubbornly, I will self publish if necessary but perhaps there are some good suggestions around before I do that will clean up my phraseology so that my readers can relate to my style.
    I must stress that in my style there is no golden rule – it depends entirely on how events affected my narrator at the time that they occurred. Some times he kissed a girl, sometimes he kisses a girl.

    Yours, Patrick McGaffin. South Africa.

  10. Rebekah says:

    Is there a best practice in terms of tense for quoting from interviews do you think? One interviewee noted that ‘…’ (2015) while another suggested that ‘…’ (2015). Or one interviewee notes that… etc.?

    • SK says:

      That’s a great question, because while the argument that current material justifies present tense might apply here, context is important as well. Clearly, interviews we cite have been conducted in the past, therefore grammatically we ought to apply the past tense. But the argument here is whether to treat academics the same. Protoscholar, above, doesn’t ‘like’ pegging another researcher to an idea or position they may not longer hold, while in response M-H argues that it is the currency of the idea, and not the temporal allocation that ought to determine the tense. Based on how you phrased your original question, my guess is you speak and write unconventionally. Much will depend on your advisor and discipline. My personal opinion is that, in the limited context you have provided, the past tense sounds better when citing interviewees.

    • Rochelle says:

      I’m excited to see that this thread is still going as I’m dealing with this issue right now. Here’s my line of reasoning – does it make sense? The best writing teacher I ever had was a literature professor and she beat literary present tense into my brain. So if I’m analyzing and writing about my interviews as text (i.e. discourse analysis) I should be using present tense, right? As others have noted I also like the activity that it lends to my data… though on the other hand given that my interview questions are very topical I’m certain some of my participants have changed their minds about some of what they said in their interviews. And given that I’ll be doing a lot of member checking and sharing what I write with them this is not a small consideration.

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