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Past or Present Tense?

May 26, 2012 Filed under Blog, Featured, Popular, Writing 

Which is correct?

A. Wetzel et al. (2004) show a negative correlation between snow density and air temperature that explains 52% of the variance.

B. Wetzel et al. (2004) showed a negative correlation between snow density and air temperature that explains 52% of the variance.

The difference is that A uses the present tense “show”, whereas B uses the past tense “showed.”

Most of the time, I use the past tense to discuss papers that were published in the past. Recently, however, I was a coauthor on a paper where we had inadvertently mixed past and present tense in a couple of paragraphs. The reviewer picked up on this and recommended present tense. Rather than get into an argument, I went through the manuscript recently and rewrote it to nearly all present tense. I was kind of energized by doing that (new writing challenge), so I tried to adopt it with a subsequent short paper that I wrote, to further test my ability to write like this.

Present tense can make sense in this context if you think of the previously published paper existing in the present and contributing to the current discussion of the topic. If you think of it that way, it works perfectly fine, albeit it may sound different to our ears if we’re not used to it.

Bottom line: I don’t think it matters which you choose, as long as you are consistent throughout your document.

What verb tense do you commonly use to describe the previously published literature?

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Eloquent Science has some material on verb tense in section 9.3.

Thanks to Matt Bunkers for getting me to think more about this issue.

Image from http://lilliputianjourney.blogspot.co.uk

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Comments

6 Responses to “Past or Present Tense?”
  1. Bob Maddox says:

    Dave,

    Re – past or present tense: I actually prefer past perfect for the example shown. “Wetzel et al. have shown….”

    Bob

  2. Thank you for raising this issue. As a literary scholar, I always use present tense, because a work of literature exists outside of time. Its truths are eternal. So it should be discussed in the present tense: “The plays of Euripides tend to depict humanity’s interaction with fate in rather a more quizzical light than those of Sophocles.”

    I understand the inclination among scientists and other researchers to date certain findings, to root them in a time and a place, to assign them to a single study, a single researcher, and be done with them. But when we begin to really dig into a finding, we start to discover how rarely research can be tied up into such neat packages.

    More often, Smith discovers a), which leads to Brown’s study, which causes Carter to disagree, which leads Downing to find d). Each study contains its own conclusion but raises as many if not more questions than it answers.

    All of which to say I too am in favor of the present tense in scientific publishing, albeit for a slightly different reason than in literary scholarship. Here, the truths are not necessarily eternal, but the publications are – as you said – available to the researcher in the present moment. Moreover, the findings are possibly active, motivating the scientific community to further study, and therefore not so conclusive as a past tense (or past perfect) would lead a reader to believe.

  3. Dt. Shivaji Sargar says:

    I usually prefer to use ‘present tense’ while analyzing and interpreting the literary works of the past as well as present because the present helps me to show the continuity of time which, undoubtedly, is the significant aspect of any literary tradition. I believe that any literary work, good or bad, is a timeless creation. Therefore, we should describe them by usung present tense.

    However, to narrate different events and incidents of these works, I use past tense. e.g. While narrating an incident about King Dushanta’s passion for hunting ( in Kalidasa’s masterpiece ‘Shakuntalam’), I’ll use past tense as his passion is spent after his arrival in the ashrama.

    It means the use of past or present depends upon what one is aiming for, i.e. wants to describe or narrate.

  4. I think it does matter which you choose, if you are speaking of current, ongoing research. The present tense is necessary to give equal balance to findings in the relatively distant past and more recent findings. Only when discussing different research in the context of time might you use the past tense.

  5. Norman Stone says:

    The present tense is more energetic because it adds a full dimension of time to your narrative. You can use the present tense to refer to ‘the most recent’ or final conditions, while the past tense can still be used to refer to the points of progress that preceded those final states. The narrator appears to inhabit and explore the most recent layer, while the past tense provides the context of causes and preconditions.

    Restricting usage to the past tense ‘flattens time’, distances the narrator and makes the narrative more archival, making events even more predetermined than they already are (were).

  6. Warrick says:

    I think your choice depends on whether you refer to the authors or their work. I agree that the plays of Euripides still tend to depict humanity’s interaction with fate. But Dr (Prof.? Mr?) Wetzel did his work back in 2004. That’s when he showed the negative correlation even though his work shows the negative correlation even now.

    In the blogger’s example, I would use the simple past tense.

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