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Use of tenses

The verb tenses you use in your lit review reveal more to your reader than just the time frame. They can also tell your reader:

  • whose idea is being put forward (yours or someone else's)
  • something about your attitude toward the ideas you are reporting on (if you have attributed them to an author/theorist)
  • how general or specific your point/description is

In brief, tenses are used in the following ways (note that this is a simplified description of tense use):

The present tense is used for:

  1. a generalisation (in overviews, statements of main points, etc.) OR a generally accepted scientific fact

    Example: "This thesis investigates the second approach."

  2. a statement made by you as a writer

    Example: "Non-standard applications such as CASE, CAD/CAM are now emerging."

  3. a statement reporting the position of a writer and your support or lack of support for this position

    Example: "Therefore, this sequential approach is impractical in the real world where projects are typically large (Radice, 1988) and the activities from one stage may be carried out in parallel with the activities of another stage."

The past tense is used to:

  1. describe the contents, findings, or conclusions of past research. It emphasises the completed nature of a past activity. It is often referred to as the 'reporting' tense, and is traditionally used by scholars to report all past findings, including even very current research in some cases.

    Example: "This model was not popular in the software industry until it was later refined by Boehm (1976)."

The present perfect tense is used to:

  1. indicate that research in the area is still continuing, or that the research has immediate relevance today

    Example 1: "Several researchers have studied distributed database design."

    Example 2: "Fricke (1983) has illustrated that black liquor shows three rheological behaviours."

  2. generalise about past literature

    Example: "Software has been tested manually for most of the last four decades."

  3. present a view using an information-prominent citation

    Example: "The services that have been identified for the future B-ISDN include [7] [77] [78]."

Thus, you can use tenses to indicate more than chronology. You can use the past tense in reporting others' research to indicate that that research is of secondary importance to your current work. You can use the present perfect to indicate that the research is of more direct and primary importance. You can use the present tense to indicate your general position relative to reported research.

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