Tense about tenses? A grammar guide and a coffee mistake

Getting your tenses right in academic writing can make people feel quite anxious, because it goes very quickly from ‘so the past tense is for the past, the present tense for the present, the future tense is for the future’ to a a very complicated mess with lots of technical terms. Rather than get into the deep grammar of it today, I’m going to talk about tenses as a way of making causal arguments (arguments about what causes things to happen).

One of the most common ways of making a causal argument in academic writing, indeed in any writing, is the form ‘first X happened therefore Y happened next.’ This works well for a range of straightforward causal links–‘I poured the water into the cup, so the cup filled with water’; or even the slightly more sophisticated, ‘I realised this was a problem so I tried another technique’. If you are running multivariate analyses and think you can define causation (rather than just correlation), then you would also be correct to use this formula.

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Most disciplines describe all of this in the past tense, just like the examples in the last paragraph. In talking about literary texts, you would normally use the present tense as the text is always present to the person reading it. Historians use the ‘historical present’ for similar reasons. But for most academic fields, describing things that happened in the past is done in the past tense.

The sequence of what happened in the past is usually explained by words like ‘first’ and ‘next’. We describe causality through words like ‘therefore’, ‘so’ or ‘because’. 

The reason to use different tenses is usually when there are things in our chapter or paper that do not belong in the past. We describe things that are happening now in the present tense (‘In this paper, we argue…’), and we describe things that will or may happen in the future in the future tense (‘As a result of these findings, we will carry out field work to show…’).

So far, so straightforward.

English however has a whole range of ways showing more complex information about when things happened, how long they were happening for, and if they are still going on happening. We also have tenses for things that happened before the past tense!  

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Here is an example to help you get your head around it:

‘It was raining, in fact it had been raining all week’. 

This shows that it wasn’t just one short event of rain but that it was ongoing. You can tell something is ongoing when it has ‘-ing’ at the end.  The form ‘had been’ means something is in the past perfect, it was back further in the past of the thing that happened in the past tense. But here it is also in the ongoing form, so it means ‘before it rained all day, it had rained all week’.

Both ‘it had been raining all week’ and ‘it had rained all week’ are perfectly grammatically correct and they mean pretty much the same thing.* The difference in the focus: one emphasises the ongoingness of the rain, the other emphasises the fact of the rain.

But we can also use tenses to show the sequence of things, and to imply the causes. Mostly this is because the form ‘first X happened therefore Y happened next’ is so common, that just by giving us a sequence of events you strongly suggest that the first thing caused the second thing.

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Okay, so now we have the tools we need to unpack a fascinating bit of grammar in a logical argument that I wrote this morning. This started life as a tweet, that I then realised might be useful to unpack to help you make sophisticated arguments using tenses in your academic writing. 

My first coffee of the day was made with cold water (I thought the kettle wasn’t boiling because it wasn’t boiling anymore, rather than because it hadn’t boiled).

  1. This takes a statement of correct observation: I looked at the kettle and saw it wasn’t boiling at this time.
  2. I then make a causal inference about it: that is to say, I make a judgement about why the kettle isn’t boiling, I analyse the situation and hypothesise a cause.
  3. The hypothesis I make is: “The kettle wasn’t boiling because it wasn’t boiling anymore, but previously it had been boiling and therefore the water was now hot.”
    1. There is a potential other hypothesis, of course, which is: “The kettle wasn’t boiling because it had never been boiling, and therefore the water was still cold.”
  4. If the water is hot, then it is the correct temperature to make coffee.
  5. I take action based on my hypothesis and use the water to make coffee.
  6. My hypothesis was false, and the water was actually cold.
  7. I realise that my hypothesis was false.
  8. I re-analyse the situation and deduce that the correct hypothesis was 3.1.
  9. I write down my realisation and share it with the public.

When I set it out like that, you can see that we could embed a lot of logical steps into a very short sentence, through the sophisticated use of tenses. 

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Sometimes it will be appropriate to fully spell out every step of your thinking, as I do in the list. But often you are working to very tight word limits, or something is not important enough to give it a whole paragraph. When that is the case, you might want to embed a lot of thinking into a dense sentence, and one effective tool to use is tense!

And yes, having realised my mistake, I made a second cup of coffee with hot water and have been drinking it as I’ve been typing this up.

I hope you find this useful as a way of showing your thinking when you don’t have a lot of words!  If you have questions about tenses, I’d love to hear about them in the comments on on Twitter. 

***

* These two forms are technically called the perfect and imperfect past tense. The perfect says that the past action is completed, and the imperfect says that the past action is not completed.

 

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