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Dissertations: Language


Welcome to the comprehensive guide on verb tenses for your dissertation. Writing a scholarly dissertation requires careful attention to verb tenses to accurately convey the timeline and sequence of events. This guide will help you navigate the intricacies of verb tenses, providing clear explanations and examples to ensure your dissertation maintains consistency and clarity. Whether you are discussing past research, presenting current findings, or speculating on future implications, this guide will serve as your invaluable resource for selecting the appropriate verb tense throughout your academic masterpiece.


The most common tenses used in Academic Writing include:

Verb tense        



Present Simple                           To make general statements Collaboration on construction projects requires the use of standards that determine the rules of engagement among the parties involved in delivering the projects.
Past Simple  To refer to specific studies/findings  Zimbardo (1998) researched many aspects of project management success.
Present Perfect                   To emphasise relevance Numerous researchers in the field have used this method.
Future Tense  To talk about predictions for the future; or in research proposals  Semi-structured interviews will be conducted. 


In the literature review you should:

  • Summarise and synthesise the most important ideas from a range of relevant documents on the topic.
  • Identify any problems with the literature, such as gaps or limitations.

Thus, the verb tenses commonly used in literature review section include:

Verb Tense Use Example
Present Simple To state facts that do not change over time, to express opinions or propose a thesis statement. Different theories exist in the literature regarding…
Present Perfect To introduce past research that is relevant to the current study, to address a gap in the current knowledge base, and to correct a dated theory that is no longer accurate. The literature on X has highlighted several …
Past Simple  To discuss the findings of earlier studies.  Jones et al. (2019) compared the rate of …
Reporting Verbs

When you include a reference in your text – whether it's a quote, paraphrase or summary – you will probably use a reporting verb. Be careful, as they can have different meanings, even if some of the differences in meaning are quite subtle.  Reporting verbs can show your opinion of others’ ideas: 

  • a belief that the literature is correct (stronger position). For example: If you write, ‘Smith (2023) discovered that . . . ‘, you are accepting their position.
  • a neutral attitude towards the veracity of the literature (i.e. neither correct nor incorrect – neutral position). For example: If you write, ‘Smith (2023) concludes that . . . ‘, you are adopting a neutral stance.
  • a belief that the literature is incorrect (weaker position). For example: If you write, ‘Smith (2023) alleges that . . . ‘, you are viewing their work in a suspicious light, casting doubt on their opinion.

Tip: Use a range of reporting verbs and avoid using the same reporting verb over and over (e.g. state)  state)

Here is a list of common reporting verbs that you can use depending on their function and strength:

Function    Weaker position Neutral position   Stronger position
Introducing ideas suggests, argues, proposes, postulates, posits  states, indicates, demonstrates, reports, reveals asserts, claims, maintains, contends, insists
Describing research Highlights, identifies, points out, discusses, notes Describes, examines, explores, investigates, considers  Characterises, portrays, depicts, illustrates, emphasises
Presenting evidence  Suggests, implies, supports, indicates, infers   Provides, presents, shows, demonstrates, illustrates Confirms, substantiates, validates, verifies, corroborates
Expressing opinion Believes, considers, opines, proposes, alleges Argues, maintains, posits, suggests     Asserts, states, claims, insists, contends

*You will often use the present simple with reporting verbs e.g. Evidence suggest that, however you will use other tenses also. 

For more examples of language used in literature reviews, have a look at the ‘Referring to Sources’ section of the Academic Phrasebank.

Information in the methods section might include information about the instruments and information about the experimental procedure. Verb tenses commonly used in the method section include:

Verb Tense  Use   Example
Past Simple To detail your research  The questionnaire consisted of two parts. 
Passive Voice To avoid the first person Participants were divided by age group.

For more examples of language used in methods, have a look at the ‘Describing methods’ section of the Academic Phrasebank


Passive vs Active Voice

The passive voice is useful to switch the focus from who is doing something to what is being done (i.e., avoid personal language such as 'I' or 'We'). The “who” becomes less important than the “what”.

For example:
Active Voice - I sorted the samples according to size.  

Passive Voice - The samples were sorted according to size.


Top Tips
  • Using the passive voice sounds more formal and is used a lot in academic writing
  • However, overusing the passive could make your writing seem 'flat' and uninteresting.
  • Try to vary sentence structure and, where possible, avoid too many passive sentences in a row.
  • Remember, the active voice may be preferable to draw attention to who has been carrying out the action. Sometimes it is important to show who is doing the action. You will have to use your judgement as best you can.


The results section commonly includes tables and figures. The writing around the figures and tables serves to introduce what they are and what conditions you obtained them under, as well as guiding the reader to understand the features in your results. 
Verb tenses commonly used in the results section include:

Verb Tense  Use  Example
Present simple or ‘It’ constructions To refer to figures, charts, tables, or other sections of the paper.  Table 1 shows… / It can be seen…
Past tense To avoid the first person  Participants were divided by age group. 
Using tables and figures 

The description of tables and figures in academic written texts commonly includes two different elements: 

  • Location or summary statement: identifies the table or figure and indicates the content
  • Highlighting statement or statements: point out and describe the relevant or significant data


Dos and Don’ts of using tables and figures 

Do not:    Instead: 
Include excessive or unnecessary tables and figures.   Only use tables and figures when absolutely necessary and to present complex data or detailed information. 
Use tables or figures as a substitute for proper explanation and interpretation in the text. Refer to tables and figures within the text and discuss their significance.
Describe all the information on the table or figure.      Provide a brief explanation of the relevant or significant data
Include a table or figure without providing a label (e.g., Figure 15. Social Skills Frequencies)    Put a label ABOVE for tables and BELOW for figures (e.g. diagrams, graphs, photographs). The label should describe in a few words the content of the table or figure. 
Mix tables and figures.  Make sure that tables and figures are numbered sequentially. There should be two numbering series: one for tables and one for figures (e.g., Table 1, Table 2 AND Figure 1, Figure 2) 
Include tables or figures without introducing them in the text or discussing them.   Place tables and figures immediately below the paragraph/relevant text. 
Just ‘plonk’ a table or figure into your writing. You need to refer to its existence and relevance to your argument in the preceding text. Refer to the table or figure by number in your writing (e.g., Table 6 shows that…; This can be seen in Figure 4) 
Restructure data from an information source into another format (e.g. a graph, a flowchart) without referencing the author of your information. Provide a reference to a source if the table or figure is from or adapted from an outside source. If you have created the table or image yourself from your own data collection, you must still use a number and label, but no reference is required. 
Use poor-quality images or illegible fonts. Ensure that tables and figures are clear, legible, and visually appealing. 

For more examples of language used in results sections, have a look at the ‘Reporting Results’ section of the Academic Phrasebank.


In the discussion section you will compare your results with the previous literature and highlight the importance of your results. The conclusion is an opportunity to restate the aims or key questions and to summarise the key points raised in the results and discussion sections.
Verb tenses commonly used in the discussion and conclusion sections include:

Verb Tense   Use   Example
Past Simple          To summarise the results of your own research or discuss studies conducted by others. Indeed, construction activity declined by 34.5%. 
Present Simple To interpret data or express an opinion, and to report facts that are unlikely to change in the future.  The results suggest that site managers can play an important role in construction.

For more examples of language used in discussions and conclusions, have a look at the ‘Discussing Findings’ and ‘Writing Conclusions’ sections of the Academic Phrasebank.

The conclusion section can also contain recommendations and implications for practice, or these can be placed in a separate section. This section discusses events that may happen in the future. However, no writer can make predictions with absolute certainty. To avoid or ‘soften’ the future tense you can use:

Verbs   Sample verbs  Example
Modal verbs   can, should, might, may, could   Risk assessment could also be carried out through Fuzzy Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FFMEA).
Verbs that suggest uncertainty   believe, assume, suggest, imply, and expect These findings suggest several courses of action for …

For more examples of language used for recommendations, have a look at the ‘Setting Out Recommendations for Practice or Policy’ in the ‘Writing Conclusions’ section of the Academic Phrasebank.


Hedging or cautious language

In academic writing, the use of hedging or cautious language is a common practice employed to acknowledge uncertainty, limitations, or alternative perspectives within a study. This cautious language is utilized to convey a balanced and objective approach, recognizing the complexity of research findings and the inherent uncertainties that exist. Hedging can be achieved through various linguistic strategies, such as using modal verbs (e.g., may, might, could), cautious adverbs (e.g., possibly, potentially), or phrases that indicate probability (e.g., it is likely that, there is evidence to suggest). By incorporating such expressions, academic writers signal their awareness of the potential limitations and provide a nuanced and accurate representation of the research, fostering intellectual humility and encouraging further investigation. The use of hedging or cautious language ensures that academic discourse is characterized by careful deliberation, integrity, and transparency.

Introductory verbs Tend to/ assume/ indicate/ estimate/ seem to/ appear to be/ doubt/ believe/suggest
Modal verbs May / might/ can / could
Adverbs Probably / possibly / seemingly / apparently / arguably / perhaps / maybe / presumably
Adjectives Probable/ possible/ likely/ doubtful/ unlikely/ uncertain
Nouns Probability/ possibility/ likelihood/ assumption/ tendency/ indication/ estimate/ evidence/ trend
Other phrases   Often/ generally/ usually/ commonly/ frequently/ occasionally/ approximately/ reasonably/ somewhat

For more examples of hedging or cautious language, have a look at "Using cautious language" section of the Academic Phrasebank. 

Journal of Suffolk Student Research

The Journal of Suffolk Student Research is an online academic journal, dedicated to the publication of high-quality undergraduate and postgraduate student research undertaken by University of Suffolk students. The journal will showcase the most outstanding student research undertaken at the University of Suffolk. It aims to promote and recognise this outstanding student research by offering valuable early experience of academic publishing and the peer review process. 

Find out more here