How to Use Present Tense in an Academic Essay

The present tense gives an essay a more immediate tone than the past tense.
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Academic essays showcase students’ abilities to present their thoughts on a topic in an organized manner. What tense should be used in academic essays is a topic that sparks debate among some people. It is sometimes appropriate to use the present tense in academics if it is executed properly.

1 Definition

The present tense conveys what is happening now. However, the present tense can also be used to convey future times as well as past times, depending on the form of the present tense used. It may also convey habitual, ongoing or constant actions. Various forms of the present tense exist. The present simple tense describes present activities, facts, universal truths, habits, permanent situations, arrangements, narrations and events that are certain to happen (e.g. "I decide.") The present perfect tense conveys actions that happened at an unknown time before the present, actions in the past that have an effect on the present and actions that began in the past and continue into the present (e.g. "I have decided.") The present continuous tense expresses actions that are happening at the moment of speaking, such as tendencies or trends (e.g. "I am deciding.") Finally, the present perfect continuous conveys actions that started in the past and continue in the present, actions that have recently stopped and temporary actions. (e.g. "I have been deciding.")

2 Subject

The present tense is more appropriate for certain academic subjects than others. For example, the present is acceptable for science papers that deal with facts that are applicable to all time. It is also ideal for literary papers when the writer is describing actions in a literary work. However, it might not be as appropriate for history papers in which past actions are discussed. Within the humanities, it is generally best to use the present tense. Many academic essays center around research, so using the correct present tense can convey the status of the research to the readers. For example, the present perfect tense implies that the research is generally accepted and also currently relevant.

3 Format

The formatting style of the academic essay also influences whether or not the present tense is acceptable. For example, the MLA style sheet prefers present tense for papers as well as in citations. The APA style sheet calls for the writer to use either the present perfect tense or the past tense. However, the Chicago Manual of Style prefers the past tense for academic essays.

4 Consistency

Consistency is important in academic essays. If an essay began with the present tense, then it should generally use the present tense throughout the entire essay. This is not to say that it is never appropriate to switch tenses in academic essays, because it is necessary when the time frame switches from the present to the past. For example, when discussing a literary work, a writer might use the present tense, but then switch to the past tense to discuss the author of the work.

Kayla Lowe has been a writer since 2007. Lowe is the author of "Maiden's Blush," a Christian fiction romance novel. She studied English and Business Administration at both Austin Peay State University and the University of Phoenix. Lowe has written for various online publications, including Yahoo!