Posts Tagged ‘literature review’

The Use of Tense in Literature Review

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

A recent flurry of tweets, seemingly initiated by @thesiswhisperer, discussed the use of tense in literature review. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive rule to using either present or past tense (i.e. Smith (1989) argues… vs. Smith (1989) argued… etc.), though switching from one to the other can be problematic and should only be done within grammatical conventions.

I tend to get into all sorts of tangles with tense, so I try to be consistent and use the present tense*. It feels more immediate and dynamic, centralising the key arguments within contemporary debate rather than the historical perspectives of individual academics. From a doctoral perspective, this approach seems favourable to the role of the literature review in enabling the emerging researcher to locate herself within the key debates she has chosen to explore, and to developing an active rather than passive voice.

* The only occasion I tend to use the past tense is when a specific historical or developmental context becomes the key focus, such as describing a change of opinion or evolution of an idea or concept. For example:

…seems to be a significant re-evaluation of the perspective she adopted in her previous study (Smith, 1989), when she argued…