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Past tense to describe what was done

In your methods section it is customary to use a form of the simple past tense to describe what you did in your study. Look at the examples below.


Total phosphorous (TP) and total nitrogen (TN) were measured in the laboratory using standard procedures.

The standard protocol was followed for the preparation of the media from stock solutions.

Active and passive voice

The two examples above are in the past tense but in the passive voice. Have a look at the examples below in the past passive and past active voice.

Example 1

Past passive

Three 2 litre samples were taken at a depth of between 0.1 and 0.5 m at the down-wind end of each wetland.

Past active

Each of the three groups took 2 litre samples at a depth of between 0.1 and 0.5 m at the down-wind end of each wetland.

Example 2

Past passive

Specified amounts of solution were added to each tube as indicated in Table 1.

Past active

We added specified amounts of solution to each tube as indicated in Table 1.

Example 3

Past passive

A control study of unaffected individuals was also conducted.

Past active

Research colleagues at the South African campus also conducted a control study of unaffected individuals.

From your reading, which voice do you think is used most often in your scientific discipline?

The section on What makes a good Science communicator? includes more on the use of the passive voice in Science.

Present tense for diagrams and figures

If you use figures or diagrams to help explain what you did, refer to the figure or diagram using the present tense.


Table 1 above shows the success of cloning in various animal species.

Figure 2 below shows methylation in mouse 2-cell embryos.

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