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“Present simple is the most common tense in academic writing, and it is usually considered as the “default” unless there is a certain reason to choose another tense (e.g. a sentence contains a past time marker).”

George Mason University Writing Center.

Use of the simple present tense in academic English follows from the basic functions of present simple.

According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary the present simple tense is used for the following (among others not as relevant for academic English):

  1. General truths and facts
  2. Regular and habitual events

Oxford Grammar for EAP states that factual description is the main use of present simple in academic writing. General statements are thus in simple present.

example: Millions of people in the world live in poverty.

example: Basic economic theory states that a decrease in the supply of goods and services leads to higher prices if demand remains the same.

Oxford details these uses of present simple in academic English as follows:

  1. describing regular activities, e.g. People obtain higher education in order to improve their job propects.
  2. decribing processes, e.g. The normal procedure is that researchers do the interviews individually.
  3. summarizing or repeating the main arguments of other academics, e.g. Johnson (2019) claims that the the urban rural divide is not a key factor.
  4. talking about the plots of books, films etc., e.g. The documentary explores the various motivations of refugees.

A common mistake is to use the present continuous instead of the simple present. In short, if there is not a clear reason to use present continuous, use present simple. A future post will compare usage of simple present and continuous.

More information:

Oxford Grammar for EAP Chapter 1 in this book is the best resource I have seen on verb tense usage in academic writing. I could not find this book on the Oxford University Press website. There are 2 copies in the FSV UK library.

The Three Common Tenses Used in Academic Writing. An excellent brief guide including a very useful table detailing the functions and an exercise.

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Pamela Cotte

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