Writing tip: verb tense and APA Style

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Theresa Bell

Deciding the appropriate verb tense usually comes down to using the one that best reflects the time period of the action described in the text, but authors may find choosing the correct verb tense for signal phrases and specific sections of major projects, theses, dissertations or journal articles more complicated.

Present or past tense in signal phrases

The choice of using present or past tense in signal phrases for paraphrases or quotations largely depends on the discipline in which authors are writing or the style guide they’re following.

  • Present tense: Lee (2015) argues that…
  • Past tense: Lee (2015) argued that…

According to APA Style, authors should "use the past tense to express an action or a condition that occurred at a specific, definite time in the past, as when discussing another researcher's work and when reporting your results" (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 78). The way I think of this approach is that the quotation or paraphrase presents the author’s thinking at the time of writing the text, which happened in the past. The published text may not reflect the author’s current thinking, so putting the signal phrase in present tense makes a claim that can’t be investigated within the source material. If you’re unsure of which tense to use in signal phrases, please check with your instructor, supervisor, or journal editor.

Verb tense to describe action in text

The APA Publication Manual provides suggestions on which verb tense is appropriate for various sections of a thesis, major project or journal article:

  • Past tense (e.g., "Smith showed") (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 65-66) or present perfect tense (e.g., "researchers have shown") for the literature review (p. 66) and "the description of the procedure if the discussion is of past events" (p. 66).
  • "Use past tense (e.g., "anxiety decreased significantly") to describe the results" (p. 66).
  • "Use the present tense (e.g., "the results of Experiment 2 indicate" to discuss implications of the results and to present the conclusions. By reporting conclusions in the present tense, you allow all readers to join you in deliberating the matter at hand" (p. 66). 

As much as possible, try to be consistent with your chosen verb tense within a section as doing so "can help ensure smooth expression" (p. 65). If the verb tenses suggested above don't make sense for the purposes of your document, please check with your instructor or academic supervisor to get their opinion on the best approach for your document.

Do you have questions about this writing tip? Please contact the Writing Centre as we'd be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Manager, Blended Learning Success

Reference

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.