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Grammar Camp: Verb tenses in essays -- chronology or relativity?

In this grammar camp post, learn about chronology and relativity in academic writing and what each approach can reveal to you about verb tense.
Published August 4, 2020 by Julia Lane

An important grammatical component of verbs is that they signify tense (i.e., the time when the action of the verb happened) through modification of their forms. Tense allows a reader to differentiate actions or events as things that have occurred, are occurring, or will occur. In writing, tense is used in two ways:

  1. When setting up a chronological order of events or actions, and
  2. When relating different events or actions to a particular topic at hand.

In academic writing, the type of paper determines which of the two ways a writer will use verb tense. For instance, argumentative papers often use the present tense, because the aim of the paper is to prove or refute a point in real time. Reports, on the other hand, often employ a mix of past and present and/or future tense, because the aim of reports is to describe the results of a series of events that have previously occurred and then to comment on the effect of those events moving forward. The best way to know what tense to use in your paper is to understand the difference between chronology and relativity in writing and to examine the aim of your paper accordingly.

Chronology

The main purpose of a chronology is to establish a timeline of events. Writing chronologically relates to the reader a sequence of events that have an established preceding and succeeding occurrence. Papers that are written chronologically will, by default of style, use the past and present tenses for sure, and may also use the future tense. The past tense will be used to establish a preceding event or action, the future tense will establish a potential succeeding event or action. Most importantly, however, the present tense will bind this timeline and establish the significance of the preceding and succeeding events in conjunction with the present. A key thing to remember about writing chronologically is that each sequence of events both influences and is influenced by each other: the past event influences how the present event will unfold. Each time sequence must be connected to the other in a linear fashion.

A good example of a chronologically written academic paper is a scientific experiment report. Apart from the hypothesis and other functional details, the main crux of a scientific report is written as a timeline of the experiment(s) that happened, the results, a present tense discussion of the results, and usually a section about potential experiments in the future.

Relativity

Relativity simply refers to the idea that certain things that often take a course of action in adherence to universal rules can sometimes bend those rules in particular circumstances. This idea is central to academic writing and is often used by authors in various disciplines. It is a style of writing that students regularly see, but do not always actively recognize. In writing, the idea of relativity is often masked by professors in other terms, such as: “staying on topic,” “including only that which is relevant,” “make sure your evidence connects to your thesis,” and so forth. The point is that when we write about a topic, we can go in any direction of time in talking about the topic, but our main focus is the topic. This approach is different from writing chronologically. Here, we are not aiming to describe past events about our topic and connect them to the present or future linearly; instead, we aim to present information about our topic by the use of different pieces of evidence that have been established in multiple time frames.

A good example of a relatively written academic paper is an argumentative paper, where we are seeking to prove a point in real time, but to do so we must pull evidence for our argument from multiple sources in the past and present. Perhaps we look to past experiments or articles or to current social issues or even our class lectures to help us prove our argument. The point is when we pull information from multiple sources, written at different times, we don’t just present our evidence from past to present chronologically; rather, we fit the information into our argument relatively.

Which style should you use for your paper? 

There is no hard and fast rule to know exactly which writing style to adopt for your paper, but, often, the type of paper you are writing, question you are answering, or topic you are addressing can point you in the right direction. Some questions you should ask are:

  • Is this a descriptive or an informative paper?

Descriptive papers most likely are chronological, while informative papers tend to be relative.

  • Is the focus here on multiple events or an underlying theme linking these events?

If the focus is on the connection of multiple, individual events themselves, you are likely to be describing a sequence of events chronologically. If, however, you are asked to talk about a particular theme that arises in multiple events, you are likely being asked to talk about the events relative to each other with respect to the theme that binds them.

  • Are all the parts of my resources relevant to answering the question?

This question is really speaking the idea that not all parts of a resource (background, description, event, present, etc.) are always necessary to explain when incorporating that resource into your paper. If your paper is theme/topic based, it will likely require only the most relevant parts of your resources that also talk about your current theme/topic and not how the resource got to that theme/topic.

  • Would a background description help my reader to understand my topic better?

Again, this question is exploring whether your topic is one that requires a timeline description in order for the message to be conveyed well. The answer here really depends on the type of paper. For instance, argumentative papers often do well with a little background about the topic, but most of the time is spent on pulling relative facts together in real time. Comparatively, a report about how a particular historical event changed a particular technology, for example, will undoubtedly do better with an informative timeline of how the event came about, what it was, and how it affected the technology in question. 

  • Does my research from resources written in the past still convey the same message or still connect to my topic today?

Often, students tend to filter and skim through different resources searching for keywords related to their theme/topic without looking into the relativity of the resource itself. Some resources, while very informative, may not hold the same temporal, social, or economic value today. Their arguments may not apply to the world today. In these cases, such resources, even in a relatively written paper, will not help convey the message of your paper’s theme/topic.

Some overall principles 

When writing relatively, always use the present tense when talking about your resources. This means that even if you are talking about an article in the past, you want to say that the author of the article “says” so and so presently in an infinite way. This signifies to your reader that the point made by the past article still stands today and relates to your theme/topic.

When writing chronologically, always keep your tenses the same. If you are talking about the past, your verbs should be conjugated to the past. It is only when you are connecting a past event with an effect in the future, that a sentence should have two differently conjugated verbs. Furthermore, these different verbs should be descriptive.

For example:

“World War II was an event which pushed on the boundaries of gender, and changed women’s place in the workforce forever [all past tense verbs]. We can still see [present tense verb] the influences of WWII on women as, ever since the end of the war, the number of women in the workforce relative to men has increased [past perfect tense] and continues to increase [present tense] to the point where it is normal for men and women to work today." 

Here the first sentence is describing what WWII was and did. The second sentence links that to the present, and the verbs here are descriptive of what has happened and is happening. Still each verb is conjugated to match the particular timeframe it is talking about.

The ultimate principle for academic papers is this, if you are unsure whether you should be providing a timeline for your topic or writing relatively about your topic, always be sure to check with your professor or TA.

-Deeya B., former SLC Writing and Learning Peer and SFU alumni