It is important to use the correct tense and voice in your written work. You will probably need to use different tenses throughout depending upon the context.
The third person voice
Academic arguments are not usually presented in the first person (using I, me or we), but use the third person (it is, they are, etc). This sounds more objective, using logic and reasoning to persuade, rather than using emotional or personal perspectives.
This may not apply, however, if you are asked to write a reflective report based on your own thoughts and experiences. This is a more personal style of writing and can usually be written using the first person.
Past tense for method
If you are writing about an experiment you carried out or a method you used then use the past tense.
For example: “Our experiment showed wide variations in results where the variable was altered even slightly.”
Present tense to conclude or discuss established knowledge
You should use the present tense if you are writing about
- established knowledge
- the findings or research of others
- your conclusions or what you have found
- figures that you have presented in a table or chart.
An example of writing about established knowledge:
“Diabetes is a condition where the amount of glucose in the blood is too high because the body cannot use it properly.” (Diabetes UK, 2015)
An example of reporting on the findings or research of others:
“Smith (2022) finds that regular exercise may contribute to good cardiovascular health.”
An example of writing about your conclusions or what you have found:
“In this case there is not a large difference between the two diameter values (from Feret's diameter and calculated equation), which again is probably due to the fact that the average circularity ratio is on the high end of the scale, 0.88, and therefore infers near circular pores.”
Writing about figures that you have presented in a table or chart:
“These figures show that the number of birds visiting the hide increase every year in May...”
Use a blend of active and passive verbs
Most verbs can be used in either an active or passive form. It is usually appropriate to use a mixture of passive and active forms within academic writing. Always check with your department to see what form of writing would be most appropriate for your subject area. You can also look at published writing in your discipline, or materials shared in your module, to understand whether active or passive forms are more commonly used.
The active voice places the subject of the sentence in charge of the action. It is usually more direct and easier to read than the passive voice.
For example: “The research assistant designed the survey.”
Here the research assistant (the subject) designed (the verb) the survey (the object).
However, sometimes you may want to emphasise what is happening rather than who is doing it. To do this you can use the passive voice.
The passive voice places the subject at the end or may leave it out completely.
For example: “The survey was designed by the research assistant.”
Here the survey (the object) was designed (the verb) by the research assistant (the subject).
The passive voice is more formal than the active voice. It is often used in academic writing as it is seen as more impersonal and therefore more objective. However, it is not always easy to read and it may add unnecessary words.
Adapted from: Stott and Avery. 2001. Writing with Style. Harlow: Longman, p.54.