English Verbs and Their Present Tenses in Theses and Dissertations
Increasing numbers of students who are writing a thesis or dissertation in the English language are not native speakers of that language. Although they may possess excellent writing skills in their own languages and even an impressive command of English, they too often suffer some disadvantage when it comes to expressing complex ideas and detailed conditions with the precision and sophistication that the examiners of theses and dissertations generally demand. Using the correct conjugations of English verbs can be especially challenging when the goal is to communicate specific procedures with accuracy, explain their relation to each other and describe the overall progress of a long research project. For that reason, I have put together some rules for conjugating English verbs in the basic present tenses. Please note in the examples below that the verbs under discussion are set in uppercase letters for clarity, but capitals should not be used in this way in scholarly prose.
The most basic of the present tenses is the simple present, which is used in ‘I AM tall,’ ‘you READ well,’ ‘she SINGS every day’ and ‘they EAT in the morning.’ This tense is used when something is happening or done right now or when an action or state is general, habitual or ongoing. The simple present tense can also be used in conditional constructions, as in ‘I agree, but only if you PLAN carefully,’ and ‘if he RUNS every day, he will be very fit.’
The present continuous tense is constructed with the present tense of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the present participle of the main verb. It is used when an action is happening now or around now, as in ‘you ARE EATING quickly,’ ‘he IS RUNNING right now’ and ‘they ARE SLEEPING at last.’ The present continuous can also be used to describe future action if that action is already planned before the sentence is written and an indication of the future is included. ‘We ARE ATTENDING a conference this weekend’ and ‘I AM GOING to the library tomorrow’ demonstrate this usage. If the meaning is negative, ‘not’ should be inserted between the two verbs, as in ‘she IS not DOING well.’ For questions, on the other hand, the subject is placed between the two verbs: ‘ARE you GOING to the library?’
The present perfect tense is often troublesome for those new to writing in English, though its construction is relatively straightforward. It is formed from the simple present tense of the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ followed by the past participle of the main verb. Examples include ‘I HAVE VISITED the library every day,’ ‘you HAVE DONE extremely well,’ ‘he HAS RUN through three parks this afternoon’ and ‘they HAVE TRAVELLED to Europe several times.’ For negative sentences, ‘not’ should appear between the two verbs, as in ‘she HAS not DONE well,’ whereas questions are formed by inserting the subject between the two verbs: ‘HAVE we FINISHED the paper?’ Because the present perfect is connected to both the past and the present, it is used to express experience and to communicate both a change and a continuing situation, so ‘I HAVE LIVED there,’ ‘the price HAS INCREASED again’ and ‘they HAVE BEEN ill for weeks’ are all correct.
The last of the present tenses is also the most complex. The present perfect continuous tense uses a threefold structure of two auxiliary verbs and a main verb. The first auxiliary verb is the simple present of ‘to have;’ the second auxiliary verb is the past participle of ‘to be;’ and the main verb should follow as a present participle. ‘He HAS BEEN INVESTIGATING the problem for years,’ ‘they HAVE BEEN VISITING the city’ and ‘I HAVE BEEN CONSIDERING a longer research project’ show correct usage. If a negative construction is required, ‘not’ should be inserted after the first auxiliary verb, and if a question is intended, the subject should appear after that first auxiliary verb: ‘I HAVE not BEEN READING in the library this week’ and ‘HAS he BEEN WRITING his thesis?’ The present perfect continuous is used of action that started in the past and is still continuing or has recently stopped, so it is appropriate in ‘they HAVE BEEN INTERVIEWING participants all week and are still at it’ and ‘his legs are sore because he HAS BEEN RUNNING all day.’
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