The 6 Most Common Academic English Tenses

You know what – grammar scares a lot of people.

It scares them so much that they put too much focus on it OR ignore it completely!

For teachers and frustrated students, grammar gives a structure for teaching or learning. It’s easy to teach a lesson on how to write sentences using the present simple. It’s also easy to open a grammar book and do some exercises on your favourite English tenses.

Basically, they focus on grammar too much. (Note: grammar exercises are useful for practicing form)

On the other hand, some teachers say: “you don’t need grammar – ignore it!” (– I’ve had both of these types of teacher, but that’s a story for another time) They usually support their argument with something like:

“Children don’t learn grammar rules when they learn how to speak their first language.”

Yes, that is true. But children are immersed in their first language for years before they speak. Babies receive constant input AND they need that language to survive.

When you’re learning a second language, you don’t have that luxury.

The truth is that if you want to learn a language effectively, you will need to think about grammar at some point. My friend Julian from Doing English has a good video about that.

But the amount of time that you need to spend studying grammar varies on what you plan to do with the language.

For example, if you’re learning English because you want to travel, then it would be better to learn patterns of language or vocabulary rather than grammar rules.

However, if you are learning English because you are going to study at an English speaking university, then you will need to know how to communicate your message effectively. And you do that by using language in the correct context (context means situation).

Communicating your message effectively is important – it’s usually a part of the grading criteria that examiners use.

That’s why in this article I’ve made it really easy for you to know which English tenses to use in different academic contexts.

So, if you’re a busy student who wants to know which tense to use in your writing, read on!

The English Tenses: Academic Edition

#1 Present Simple Tense

english tenses

“Bears live in families”

What should you use it for?

The present simple tense has a few different functions in academic writing:

  1. Reoccurring actions or truths
  2. Stating general truths or things believed to be true
  3. Stating scientific or mathematical truths
  4. Stating permanent truths
  5. Making general statements in your writing
  6. Giving recent or current evidence to support a point

As you can see… most of the uses are related to talking about things that are (or aren’t) true/factual.

Examples in use:

  1. The number of students using the internet rises each year.
  2. Most people believe that it rains everyday in the UK.
  3. Water boils at 100oc.
  4. Balloons are made from a type of rubber. – note this is a passive sentence.
  5. This research suggests that there are two types of people in the world.
  6. Research by Khoshsima et al (2015) proves that concept maps can help you to learn more vocabulary.

#2 Present Continuous Tense

english tenses

“More people are using their phones to take photographs.”

What should you use it for?

The present continuous is a useful tense for showing temporary changes and fluctuations. Use it if you’re commenting on a graph, chart or statistics.

  1. Showing current or temporary trends
  2. Events currently happening

Examples in use:

  1. Students are spending more money on technology each year.
  2. This paper is currently being – note this is a passive sentence.

#3 Present Perfect Tense

What should you use it for?

The present perfect allows you to show the relationship between a past action and the present:

  1. Referring to research which is still relevant today
  2. Connecting your research to previous research (making your paper seem more important) [Go present perfect -> present simple]
  3. Showing how past events affect the present

Examples in use:

english tenses

“Chess has been proven to increase your logical thinking.”

  1. Research has found that successful students have similar characteristics.
  2. Language learning strategies have become a popular area of research. However, there is a lack of research into the language learning strategies used in Academic English.
  3. These findings have changed the way that people cook fish. – Active
    The way that people cook fish have been changed due to these findings. – Passive

Quick tip: If there’s a specific time in the past when it happened, use the past simple tense!

#4 Past Simple Tense

What should you use it for?

The past simple is quite useful because it is the easiest way to talk about actions and events that have already happened. This is what it’s used for:

english tenses

“The sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy.”

  1. Describing your methods or your data
  2. Showing past actions
  3. Using research from the past
  4. Showing past beliefs (that have now changed)

Examples in use:

  1. I conducted the interviews in a classroom. – Active
    The interviews were conducted in a classroom. – Passive
  2. The Titanic hit the iceberg less than a week after it set sail.
  3. The research found that the earth was round.
  4. The Aztec people believed that human sacrifice was essential.

#5 Will

Will is used much more than ‘going to’ when referring to the future in academic contexts. However, it might be better to use other modals (see the next section) if you’re not sure about the future.

What should you use it for?

english tenses

“Smoking will lead to health problems.”

  1. Making strong Predictions for the future
  2. Describing future plans

Examples in use:

  1. Unless alternative fuels are discovered, global warming will be a severe issue in the future.
  2. This essay will investigate the effects of social media on productivity.

#6 Could/ Should

What should you use them for?

Modals aren’t English tenses, but they fit into this post quite well, so I’m including them. Modals (such as could and should) have different uses in academic writing:

Could:

  1. Showing possibility – this is a good pattern to use when hedging or being cautious.

Should:

  1. Giving advice or a suggestion – try using it at the end of a paragraph
  2. Making a logical conclusion – if your argument or evidence leads to a logical conclusion, use ‘should.

Examples in use:

Could

  1. One prevention method could be to use online applications which stop the user from accessing social media sites.

Should

  1. Therefore, to prevent a plastic bag crisis, more people should recycle their plastic bags.
  2. As the evidence suggests, students should review their notes often.

What Next?

Well, that was a quick run-through of the most used Academic English tenses. Other English tenses (such as past perfect and past continuous) are used, but not often.

This information is good for you because if you want to review tenses, you know which ones to focus on.

Oh and one more thing. The three most common Academic English tenses are: Present simple, past simple and present perfect.

Here’s what you do next:

  • Share the article with a friend – you’ll make their life easier!
  • Sign up to the English For Study Newsletter for more advice like this.
  • Print out the cheatsheet that I made for this article.
  • Practice using the English tenses in context: Write a short essay how your city has changed over the last 30 years.
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About the Author Sam

Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.

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