Literature review tense: What tense should I use in my literature review?

Literature review tense: Your literature review is likely to be the first major task you undertake for your masters dissertation or PhD thesis.

You will need to assess which tense to use paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by sentence. Please remember that what you read on this page are suggestions and not rules. Also remember that when you have decided on your approach to tenses in the literature review be consistent throughout the chapter. I will now describe my recommended use of tenses.

1. For reporting/ describing existing research

Use the past tense in sentences/paragraphs which are describing the findings/ results/ methods of a study that has already been published. E.g. “Smith (2010) reported that ….” In this kind of sentence the source (citation) is the subject of the sentence.

2. For critical engagement

When you are engaging critically with other literature, presenting your own views it is better to use the present tense. The switch in tense will help identify to the reader that you are now presenting your own views not just describing other literature. E.g “Smith (2010) argues …”

3. For the most recent literature and generalised reviewing

To mark out the most recent literature (last  few years) it is a good idea to use the present perfect tense. E.g. “Smith (2017) has found that …” or combining multiple recent sources. E.g. “Recent studies have found that … (Smith, 2017; Williams, 2016). It is also suitable for making generalised statements about past research. E.g. “Since the late 1890s scientists have studied….”

So using my suggestions you are likely to have more than one literature review tense – in fact three different literature review tenses – past, present and present perfect.

What about tenses in the other chapters? .. Read more here

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