Verb Tenses

Resource Summary: This page presents information about the most common verb tenses in academic writing and guidelines for their use (including APA recommendations for referring to literature).

Last Updated: 05/17/11

Verb Tense: An Overview

Verb tenses place actions in time, expressing whether the actions already took place (past), are currently taking place (present), or will be taking place (future). In scholarly writing, the most common verb tenses we use are the following:

Use the simple present to describe a general truth, an action that is happening now, or an action that occurs on a regular basis:

Example:  The hospital admits patients whether or not they have proof of insurance.

Use the simple past tense to describe an action that took place at a specific point in the past:

Example:  Zimbardo (1998) researched many aspects of social psychology.

Use the future tense to describe an action that will take place at a particular point in the future (particularly useful when writing abstracts for papers):

Example:  In this Breadth section, I will discuss literature pertaining to current healthcare policy.

Verb Tense: APA Guidelines

In addition to calling for consistency and accuracy, APA formatting calls for the use of specific verb tenses for paraphrasing and analyzing research. Generally speaking, research results should be described in the past tense because the research took place at a particular moment in the past:

ExampleSmith (2011) found that...

However, you may refer to findings that still hold true in the present tense:

Example:  Smith (2011) found that the treatment is effective.


Verb Tense Progression Chart

Simple Present

They discuss

Present Perfect

They have discussed

Simple Past     

They discussed

Past Perfect     

They had discussed


They will discuss

Future Perfect  

They will have discussed

Present hypothetical

If they discussed..., they would know...

If they had discussed..., they would have known...

(go back to the past to discuss the present)

Future prediction

If they discuss..., they will know...

(go back to the present to discuss the future)


If they were discussing..., they would know...

If they had been discussing, they would have known

(go back to the present to discuss the future)