Nov 24, 2022

Abstract Verb Tense: Should You Use Past or Present?

Wordvice HJ

Since many of you have asked us questions about seemingly conflicting rules about which tense to use in a research paper, we wrote this article to clarify the issue.

When writing and editing an abstract for a research article, several different verb tenses can be used. Which tense you should use largely depends on the subject of your sentence. As a general rule:

  • Any statements of general fact should be written using the present tense.
  • Prior research should be mentioned and explained using the past tense.
  • If the subject of your sentence is your study or the article you are writing (e.g. “Our study demonstrates…,” or “Here, we show…”), then you should use the present tense.
  • If you are stating a conclusion or an interpretation, use the present tense.
  • If the subject of your sentence is an actual result or observation (e.g. “Mice in Group B developed…”), you would use the past tense.

Which Abstract Tense to Use

You may have been taught to use the present tense because your professors want you to focus on sharing your interpretations in your abstract rather than simply stating what the results are. (And we agree since the main reason for reading your research papers is to understand the significance of your findings!)

To illustrate the different use of verb tenses in an abstract, let’s take a look at this research paper abstract from an article published in Nature.

  • The present tense is used for general facts (“The anaerobic formation and oxidation of methane involve…”).
  • The present tense is used when the study or article is either the subject of the sentence or the thing to which you are referring (“Here [this article] we show that an anaerobic thermophilic enrichment culture …”).
  • When talking about an actual observation, however, the past tense is used (“Genes encoding 16S rRNA…were repeatedly retrieved from marine subsurface sediments…”).

As you can see from this example, this abstract is largely written in the present tense. This is because it focuses on the authors’ interpretations and not on specific observations and methods. If your abstract contains more descriptions of your findings because you need those for the reader to follow your interpretations and conclusions, then a bigger part of your abstract will be written in the past tense. But make sure you switch between the tenses when you switch between the different categories of information described above. 

We hope this addresses any questions you have about tense use in research paper abstracts. We know how complicated these grammar rules can be!

For rules about which verb tenses to use in a research paper, check out our infographic! For additional information about how to write a strong research paper introduction, methods, results, or discussion section, make sure to check out our Wordvice academic resources website! We also have articles on how to make an outline before drafting your manuscript, how to come up with the best title for your paper, or how to impress the editor of your target journal with a great cover letter.

And if you require English proofreading or academic editing for your abstract, be sure to check out our Manuscript Editing Services. Our editors revise your work for grammar, punctuation, style, readability, and conciseness. After all, a polished abstract is crucial to getting researchers to read your research paper in its entirety.

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