Should Essays be in Present Tense?

Grammatical tenses are important in all types of writing, but we’ll concentrate on their application in academic writing. I will explain whether you should use present tense in essays or not.

Should Essays be in Present Tense?

No, essays should not always be in present tense. Although more than a third of college and school essays are written in present tense, past tense is often needed when referring to other authors’ ideas. Simple present tense is used when presenting you own views.

Tense consistency is what matters.

College and school essays are typically written in the simple past tense or past perfect tense.

However, because it is more concise, it is preferable to use simple past tense. More importantly, rather than bouncing between two or three tenses throughout the essay, it is recommended that you stay to one throughout. So, rather of moving between past and present or past and future, if you start in simple past tense, you must use it throughout the essay.

Also, while presenting your own thoughts, you should use simple present tense, and when quoting someone else’s perspective, you should use simple past tense.

What Tense Should I Use in Writing?

In general, present tense should be used when writing most essays, with past tense used when referring to past events or an author’s ideas. The narrative essay is one big exception to these norms, as the writer can use either past or present tense, but the work should be tense consistent throughout.

Most essays you write in high school and later will need you to analyze some aspect of literature.

  • As an example, your teacher may ask you to explain how the word choice used by the author contributes to the tone of a poem or analyze the main theme of a particular piece of literature.
  • You should employ what is known as the “literary present” in these essays. This indicates that you write about the tale in the present tense, even though the story may be written in the past tense.

There are, however, a few exceptions to this way of writing. (After all, it is English, and every rule seems to have an exception, right?) If you’re writing about anything that happened before the story’s plot started (like Scout’s mother’s death in To Kill a Mockingbird), you’ll use the past tense.

You’ll also need to use past tense verbs for clarity. “Scout realizes that Boo had shielded her from Bob Ewell,” you might write. “Scout realizes that Boo shields her from Bob Ewell,” for example, would be confusing and untrue.

Historical writings, on the other hand, are a different matter. Most authors use the past tense to discuss completed occurrences since they are describing real happenings.

As an example, you may write, “Henry VIII gave fierce orders Queen Anne’s beheading in an attempt to create an heir.” History has come to an end.

Changing the verb to “gives” would be odd and imply that anything hasn’t happened yet.

If in doubt, use literary present tense—or contact your instructor. And, regardless of the tense you use, make sure you stick to it throughout your entire paper.

The main rule for all essays, as well as any other sort of writing, is to choose a tense and stick to it. Writing in one tense and changing tenses merely to imply a movement in time or perhaps some dramatic purpose is one of the most aggravating things for a reader to endure.

The Past Tense in Academic Writing

You could employ the past tense in an academic paper to illustrate that a viewpoint is no longer commonly accepted. For example, the past tense “claimed” and “has since been disputed” both indicate that the study is no longer valid:

  • Cook and Moore (1964) argued that profane language is funny, however many specialists have since refuted this assertion.

When explaining the methodology used in a previously conducted experiment, the past tense is also widely used in academic writing:

  • Two hundred samples were tested using unique approaches.

However, some institutions have specific guidelines for how a methodology chapter should be written, so check your style guide for tense usage requirements.

The Present Tense in Academic Writing

Because it is reasonable when writing about current happenings or states of being, the present tense is prominent in most forms of academic work. Some of the applications include: 

  • Known facts and theories (for example, “Profane language is unusual but common among young people…”)
  • A study’s findings (for instance, “The findings show that…”)
  • Other people’s ideas or claims (for instance, “Cook and Moore argue that…”)

Even when presenting a study that took place in the past, the present tense is normally correct as long as the conclusions are still applicable today.

The Future Tense in Academic Writing

Although the future tense is less popular in academic writing, it nevertheless serves a few crucial functions. One is in research proposals, where you’ll need to discuss your study goals, predictions concerning results, and methods:

One is in research proposals, where you’ll need to discuss your study goals, predictions concerning results, and methods:

  • This study will explore the role of profane language in humor. We anticipate that the majority of respondents will find vulgar language amusing.

When advocating new research lines or discussing how the findings of a study could be implemented, the future tense also becomes meaningful:

  • Further research into the rising usage of profane language in everyday life, according to our findings, should be carried out.

The most important thing to remember is that the future tense is used to describe something that hasn’t transpired yet or is projected to happen in the future.

How to use tenses in an Essay

The Purdue Online Writing Lab is a fantastic resource for all types of grammar and writing problems, and these are their specific recommendations:

  1. Use the past tense to describe events and to refer to an author’s ideas as historical events (for example, biographical material about a historical figure or a timeline of changes in an author’s thoughts).
  2. Use the present tense to convey facts, allude to ongoing or routine actions, and discuss your own thoughts or those expressed by an author in a specific work.
  3. Use the present tense to describe action in a novel, film, or other fictional story. You could want to tell an incident in the present tense, as if it were happening right now, for dramatic impact. If you do, stick to the present tense throughout the story, changing it only when necessary.
  4. Future action can be indicated in a number of ways, including the usage of will, shall, is about to, are about to, tomorrow, and other temporal adverbs, as well as a variety of contextual indicators.