The Use of Tense in Literature Review

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…

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5 Responses to “The Use of Tense in Literature Review”

  1. virginia Yonkers Says:

    I actually have less trouble with the literature review because it makes sense to say, “he or she wrote” rather than “he or she writes”. What really gets dicey is writing up your results as I have both what I observed and how I interpret that (past and present). Then you get into implications (future?). Fortunately this is an area where my committee members excel (my dissertation IS in workplace writing so they all have some background in writing).

  2. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Virginia. I admit using the present tense in reviewing literature can seem counterintuitive. And you are right to point out the tense issue is not confined to the lit. review – it can be problematic when describing methodology and findings, especially if one is trying to develop a highly recursive and reflective narrative.

  3. Naomi J Says:

    Really interesting – thanks. Where do you stand on the actual use of the active voice, i.e. referring to ‘I’ in the lit review? I’m interdisciplinary. Disability studies has a convention of using the active voice, where biblical studies does not. Trying to resolve the two conventions is tricky!

  4. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks Naomi. That’s a whole new discussion! My feeling is the use of ‘I” is less reliant on consistency for or against, but can be used strategically or appropriately, such as emphasising assertiveness or clarifying personal opinion or actions.

  5. The tense debate « The Thesis Whisperer Says:

    […] preferable, while the humanities preferred present tense. The debate generated such interest that Andy Coverdale wrote an entry on his blog clarifying the social science […]

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