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Your Tenses Matter in Scholarly Writing

Knowing when to use which tense in your dissertation or thesis is a common problem for both native and non-native writers in English. As longtime dissertation mentors, we see this problem regularly. Here are some guidelines for you to follow in correctly using tense.

Tense usage in your Proposal

Since a proposal is a blueprint or a plan for a study that has not yet taken place, any reference to your study needs to be in the future tense:

Example: In this proposed qualitative phenomenological study, the lived experiences of nurses working in disaster zones will be explored.

Tense references to other studies:

Any reference to a study that has been published should be in the past tense. Once your study is complete, then you will reference your study in the past tense as well. However, any statement regarding a theory, program, concept, or policy that is still in effect, should be in the present tense.

For example:

1.   If simulation technology is still going on, then:  “Simulation technology provides techniques designed to enhance the skills of healthcare providers”, rather than ‘provided’ techniques designed to enhance the skills of healthcare providers.

2.   If the simulation technology was used in a study then: “To determine the efficacy of simulation technology, Brown (2016) surveyed 140 healthcare professionals who used this technology and 140 healthcare professionals who did not use the technology”.

Per pp. 42-43 of the APA Publication Manual, you should use past tense or present perfect tense for discussing literature, an action or condition that occurred at a specific time in the past.

For example, Smith (2015) found or Smith (2015) has found…, or “Children confuse the source of their memories more often than adults” (Barney, 2013; Jones, 2015).

Tense Usage in Your Final Study

In the proposal chapters of a dissertation (1-3), a common error is to neglect to change future tense to past tense and to remove language referring to the proposal. If you search for will or propose, you can locate proposal remnants and areas to update the dissertation so that the completed study is referenced only in the past tense.

Use present tense to discuss implications and to present conclusions. There are ways to write in active voice and use past tense by rephrasing sentences, such as in the following examples:

Avoid: Passive voice: “Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 20 mid-level  managers   to explore their lived experiences”.

Avoid: Anthropomorphism: “Semi-structured interviews identified the lived experiences   of 20    mid-level managers (See APA page 69).”

Use: Twenty mid-level managers participated in semi-structured interviews and     shared their     lived experiences. Use past tense to describe the results, but present tense to discuss    implications when discussing your conclusions.

            Example: “The weight of livestock increased as the nutritional value of feed increased.      These   results suggest that feeds higher in nutritional value contribute to greater    weight             gain in             livestock.” (Use past tense to indicate what you found [weight          increased], but             present tense to suggest what result implies)

Chapter Introduction: When you are explaining the contents of a chapter in the chapter,                            the present tense is used.

            Example: Chapter 2 includes a review of the literature.

Chapter Summary: Use the past tense to explain what the current chapter included, and    the      present tense to explain the contents of the next chapter.

            Example: Chapter 2 included a review of the literature. Chapter 3 includes a discussion                  of the methodology used in the study.

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