4 Quick Tips on Using Correct Verb Tense for APA Style
by Michael Premo, APA Editor
For many people writing their thesis or dissertation, a common concern is how to use the correct verb tense. The APA Style Guide (7th edition) provides a section on “Grammar and Usage: 4.12” that is brief and in some ways, ambiguous. The following tips should provide you with a little more clarity through some important examples.
APA Verb Tense Basics
Using verbs in APA Style guide can be vague and confusing, especially when you consider the complexity of the endeavor. Writing a scientific paper becomes easier once you understand the section on verb tense. Over time it will make sense and become more intuitive, but to get there quickly takes some serious thought into what you are writing and the audience. Anyone writing a dissertation should understand APA style for verb tenses because it improves clarity.
TIP #1: Remember to Maintain Verb Tense Agreement
Keep every sentence within a paragraph in agreement. If the first sentence is in present tense, then the entire paragraph should be in present tense. This is especially important to remember because your thesis’ or dissertation’s introduction can become a jumble of verb tenses.
The same holds true for short essays. Verb tense agreement keeps rhythm and time, like a bass player or drummer in a jazz trio. According to the APA Style Guide, your introduction will probably have the following tenses:
Present = verb
Present Perfect = has + past
Past = verb + “ed” (or irregular)
Past Perfect (pluperfect) = had + past
Future = will
Modal = would, could, or should
The most commonly used verb tenses are present and past because they speak about your current study and research findings in the past. You will also use present and past perfect tense to describe current research and the studies before yours. Future tense describes your research intentions and methods, while modal verbs may describe possible outcomes and conclusions.
“Sudden, unnecessary shifts in verb tense in the same paragraph or in adjacent paragraphs may confuse readers.” APA Publication Manual, 7th Edition
Stick with these verb tenses and make sure they stay in agreement throughout the paragraph. For qualitative research, you can describe your findings using present tense verbs because you synthesize the information while gathering and recording it. The opposite is true for quantitative studies.
Here is an example of verb agreement within the paragraph:
“Online communication has its benefits, but at what costs to the children caught in the ever-growing trend of digitally based communities. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2013), children lost their ability to learn social skills because so much of their time was spent on electronic devices. Drussell (2012) found that a growing trend of communicating via text and social media led to a loss of interpersonal communication through physical contact. ”
At first glance, both sentences using the past tense may support the statement made in the first sentence, but they don’t substantiate the statement as a present-day concern. In scientific writing and research, just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean that it is happening today.
“Online communication has its benefits, but at what costs to the children caught in the ever-growing trend of digitally based communities, while they are living and learning in their physical communities. Adding to these potential problems, yet extending beyond the classroom environment, are concerns about children losing their ability to learn social skills, because of their interactions with electronic devices, such as computers, smartphones, and tablets (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013). There is a growing fear of a loss of interpersonal communication through direct contact, as opposed to the growing trend of communication through texting and instant messaging through social media websites (Drussell, 2012).”
As you can see, the statements you make in the present tense are supported by the research performed in the past.
TIP #2: APA Style Guide for Citing Research
You can cite your research using the following tenses:
These are the most common verbs used for academic writing. The trick here is to know when and how to use them properly. Here’s a description and example for each one:
Present –Typically, present tense describes research findings from multiple researchers that are synthesized (paraphrased) to make strongly worded statements.
Example:Urban and rural school districts still face problems with persistence (Fullan, 1992; Wexworth et al., 2017).
Past – When writing about others’ research, you’ll want to use past tense, as described above in Tip #1. This is easy to remember because their research was done in the past. Most of your literature review will be in past tense.
Example:Despite recognizing a lack of parity within the organization, a significant gap remained with regard to compensation and promotions (DesRoches et al., 2010).
Present Perfect – Present perfect (has + simple past) doesn’t indicate a specific time, which makes it a little ambiguous. The action occurred in the past–multiple times in the past–or continues in present. This verb form is especially useful for your literature review and methodology, when citing findings from one or multiple studies.
Example:Over the past four decades, the observations of transitioning elementary students have found that educators need to be aware of individual needs while addressing the needs of the classroom (Aiken, 2002; Bandura, 1977; Wentzel et al., 2010).
Changing Verb Tense
Again, you’re looking for verb tense agreement throughout the paragraph, so you may need to change a sentence to make it fit. Here is an example of how to change a sentence from past tense to present:
Past Tense – “Despite recognizing a lack of parity within the organization, a significant gap remained with regard to compensation and promotions (DesRoches et al., 2010).”
Switch to Present – “A significant gap remains with regard to compensation and promotions for women, despite leadership recognizing a lack of parity within the organization.”
The present tense statement would appear in your introduction (chapter 1) and support a problem or purpose statement, both of which are in present tense.
TIP #3: Prior to IRB Approval
Your dissertation is a study proposal or prospectus prior to IRB approval. Your study hasn’t happened, yet. Because of this, you will be using a lot of the future tense in chapter 1 and chapter 3. Future tense is used to describe the study’s intentions. Here’s an example:
Student persistence is a primary concern for many school districts throughout the United States. This study will explore students’ resourcefulness through their ability to overcome barriers to learning. The findings will show how students adapt using coping mechanisms or other processes to overcome challenges.
As you probably noticed, present tense and future tense appeared side-by-side. This is one exception to the 1st Tip: a paragraph can start in present tense and have sentences in the future tense. I find that finishing the paragraph using future tense, as opposed to popping a sentence or two in the middle, makes a direct statement and ends on more definitive terms. And, using the past tense in the first sentence is too much of a temporal leap and “violates” the smoothness of expression.
Shorter papers may require a proposal or idea phase. For these types of papers, not only will using the future tense get you prepared for larger publications, it strengthens your argument by describing what you are going to do in direct terms.
Tip #4: Findings and Discussion
A qualitative study can use both past and present tense verbs to describe the results. This comes from the exploration of the data to interpret and contribute to the findings. Quantitative studies have a hardline to follow when reporting results, and must report their findings using the past tense.
Your findings happened in the past, but the implications and conclusions you draw from them are in the present. Your discussion of the findings (chapter 5) will go back and forth between past and present depending upon the subsections. Also, in your discussion, you’ll be comparing past research with your own findings, which leads to the careful use of past tense and present perfect.
APA Style Writing – It’s a Process
When writing your mid-term thesis or dissertation, remember that it’s all just a process–you start with a draft and revise frequently. Getting the words and information on page is more critical in the early stages of writing, so don’t worry about verb tense agreement until you’re ready to edit your work.
Also, something to remember is that scientific writing is repetitive, so you will be repeating a lot of the same verbs to describe research. When were were young writers, we were taught how to vary our verbs to break up the monotony and make our writing more interesting. The same is true for scientific writing, but you may lose the intended meaning of your words when using the wrong synonym. So be careful when trying to maintain variety with your verbs.
As a writing coach, I’ve worked with individuals throughout the United States to help them write and refine their dissertations. Verb tenses is only one of many complexities when it comes to writing your thesis. If you’d like to know more about how I can help you, just send me an email so we can clear up any confusion or obstacles that you may be having.
For a quick view of the Recommended Verb Tenses in APA Style Papers, look for Table 4.1 (p. 118) in the APA Publication Manual, 7th edition.
Writer. Editor. Project manager. Researcher. Collaborator. Graduate of the Spalding University Masters in Fine Arts with an emphasis in Fiction. Theory junkie. Avid reader. University of Iowa (BA '97).
Michael's unique ability is to understand and write to the audience for any business application or ghostwriting project. It's his passion for writing that keeps him learning more-and-more every year. He is a member of the Association of Writing Professionals, and fully versed in Associated Press (AP) and American Psychological Association (APA) writing guides.