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Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding common mistakes with Tenses

Conducting scientific research can be a long and complex process, and the path to publishable results rarely runs straight. When you finally reach the point where you feel you have something that’s worth sharing with the wider scientific community, the next challenge is to communicate it clearly and concisely. This can be a daunting prospect at the best of times, especially if you’re not writing in your first language.

Several specific errors seem to appear frequently in the papers we edit, particularly those written by researchers whose first language is an East Asian language such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean. This article examines a few of the most common mistakes made by authors when writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL) and provides some tips on how to avoid them.

Common mistakes regarding tenses

A common confusion in the context of scientific writing regards writing about when something happened, is happening or is going to happen. This is perhaps not surprising as the construction of tenses in East Asian languages tends to be very different from that in English. There are some simple things to remember that may help you to get this right.

Using the past tense

If you’re describing things that were done to obtain results, such as conducting experiments or simulations, or processing data, then you should generally use the past tense. This is also true if you’re describing things that were found in those results. [This means that most of your paper, especially the Methods and Results sections, should probably be written in the past tense.] For example, you should write:

The temperature was recorded every 10 minutes. (Or: We recorded the temperature every 10 minutes.)

The average length of the specimens was found to be 6 mm.

You should not write:

Record the temperature every 10 minutes. (Or: The temperature is recorded every 10 minutes.)

The average length of the specimens is found to be 6 mm. (Or: We find the average length of the specimens to be 6 mm.)

There are some situations in which it may be more appropriate to use a different tense, but if in doubt, it’s best to use the past tense when describing what’s already happened.

This also applies when describing what someone else has done. For example, it would be more appropriate to say:

Smith et al. (2011) proposed a method to distinguish between these two phenomena.

Changes in mean sea temperature as a function of such activity were investigated by Baxter and Cumberdale (1988), and they concluded that…

You should not write:

Smith et al. (2011) propose a method to distinguish between these two phenomena.

Changes in mean sea temperature as a function of such activity are investigated by Baxter and Cumberdale (1988), and they conclude that…

This means that areas of text such as the literature review in an Introduction section are likely to be written mostly in the past tense.

Using the present tense

Some of the sentences in a paper will be stating facts or describing general conclusions. In these cases, the present tense is most appropriate. This may include some parts of an Introduction, such as:

This article presents the results of a study examining…

In outlining the current understanding of a topic, you may also state things that are already known:

The intensity of an electromagnetic wave is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from its source.

Although your figures and tables show results that were obtained in the past, they are always currently present in the paper. This means that they should be referred to in the present tense. For example, do write:

The results of the analysis are listed in Table 2.

Figure 6 shows a plot of the results.

Don’t write:

The results of the analysis were listed in Table 2.

The results were plotted in Figure 6.

Once you have summarised your results, you may be able to draw broader conclusions, and these should also be in the present tense. For example:

From these results, it is clear that the pressure in such a system decreases with increasing volume.

In a scientific paper, you’ll most likely be using the present tense rather less frequently than the past tense, but it is still important to know when to use it.

Using the future tense

In all likelihood, you’ll only relatively infrequently need to use the future tense in a scientific paper. The most common reason to use it is in the Conclusions or Discussion section when describing future work that will be carried out:

In future experiments, we will examine the relationship between…

However, you may also occasionally use it to describe known facts or predictions:

By 2030, it is expected that nearly 76% of electricity will be generated using…

In approximately 5 billion years, the sun will run out of hydrogen to fuse, and it will eventually become a red giant.

Summary

In a scientific paper, because you’ll mostly be writing about research that has been conducted at a point in time before the paper was written, the past tense will usually dominate. You’ll sometimes need to use the present tense, and you’ll only very occasionally use the future tense. If you’re not sure which you should be using, consider the following points:

  • Are you describing things that have happened or have been done in the past (e.g. methods used, results obtained or work carried out by someone else)? If so, you should use the past tense.
  • Are you stating known facts, describing general conclusions or referring to parts of the paper itself (such as what it describes or its figures and tables)? If so, you should use the present tense.
  • Are you writing about work that has yet to be carried out or giving predictions about things that may happen after the current time? If so, you should use the future tense.

 

Read next (second) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding common mistakes with Introductory Words and Phrases

 

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