Professor Pedantic 教授的考究學問
The professor awaits your query on academic writing, though in all honesty, he doesn’t have a lot of time for you. He is a tenured full professor and working on yet another magnificent academic tome. Even so, he has graciously consented to entertain your question. Submit it and prepare to be edified.

QUESTION: I seem to lack “tense sense.” That’s how a classmate puts it. I can’t seem to get the tense right in many of my research paper sentences, switching back and forth between present and past tenses. Is there a rule to help me?

“Tense sense.” Cute. I suppose your classmate says using periods and commas inconsistently is “punctuation fluctuation” and being pretentious in your word choices is “grammar glamour.” (If I continue much longer in this vein, I will be guilty of “cluster bluster.”) Yes, correct and consistent use of verb tense in sentences helps weld a paper into a whole document, whereas sloppily constructed sentences loosen the grip of a paper on a reader. The impact of shifting tenses often is so subtle that a reader can’t pin down the cause of the drift; however, it is sensed.

Generally, an introductory section of a paper uses the present tense to good advantage. The body of the work is often couched in the past tense in describing completed research and materials of generally established authority. The concluding segments of a paper often allude to future research on a subject, which can, of course, employ the future tense. While a writer is not locked into this pattern of tense usage, it is a functional application of tenses and, in the end, how writing functions is the critical difference between clear communication and fogginess.

No neat rules have been formulated to guide academic writers except to have clearly in mind both time and place. This is especially important if an attempt is made to tinker with timelines for dramatic effect. For example, it can gratify a writer and enlighten a reader when a particularly satisfying research moment is reported in a tense that transports the reader back to the exciting moment of discovery. You are there! Yet if the transition into and out of the present tense is not smooth and seamless, the reader is not excited; he is confused by the shifting perspective.

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