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Academic Coaching & Writing
 

IX. Using APA Style in Academic Writing: Verb Tense, Voice, and Mood

Feb 19, 2015 by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

In creative writing, the author can shift tense, voice, and mood in unexpected ways to heighten suspense and add interest to her prose. Academic writing, however, is expected to use verbs in a more consistent (though not necessarily less interesting) way.

Use the past tense to narrate events that have already happened (e.g., experimental procedure).

  • Correct: Each cage was furnished with an exercise wheel and a mirror.
  • Incorrect: Each cage is furnished with an exercise wheel and a mirror.

Use the past or present perfect tense in a literature review.

  • Correct: Smith and Johnson (2013) attributed this effect to the presence of cheese.
  • Correct: Smith and Johnson (2013) have attributed this effect to the presence of cheese.
  •  Incorrect: Smith and Johnson (2013) attribute this effect to the presence of cheese.

Use the present tense to discuss results and present conclusions or general truths.

  • Correct: Our findings indicate that this method is successful.
  • Incorrect: Our findings indicated that this method was successful.
  • Correct: Because water freezes at 32° F, the bottles were insulated.
  • Incorrect: Because water froze at 32° F, the bottles were insulated.

Active Versus Passive Voice

The APA Publication Manual directs authors to “use the active rather than the passive voice, and select . . . mood carefully” (3.18, p. 77). This is good advice, as overuse of the passive voice is a typical symptom of flabby writing. However, the passive voice is by no means forbidden in APA Style.

Consider the passive voice as a way of shifting the focus of a sentence. In a simple subject-verb-object sentence in the active voice, such as “Roger smashed the pumpkin,” the subject (Roger) is the agent or doer of the action; the object (pumpkin) is the recipient of the action. In the passive voice, this becomes “The pumpkin was smashed by Roger.” Now the subject (pumpkin) is the recipient of the action, and the object (Roger) is the agent.

This shift of focus is used in academic writing to place the focus on what was done, not who was doing it. The passive voice is especially appropriate (although not required) in the Method section of a research paper. 

  • Correct: The rats were placed in 30 cm x 30 cm cages.
  • Correct: We placed the rats in 30 cm x 30 cm cages.
  • Incorrect: It was decided to place the rats in 30 cm x 30 cm cages.

Use the active voice when the focus is on the agent or doer: You designed the experiment; you conducted the research; you formed conclusions. Use the passive voice when the focus is on the thing done—things that anyone could do in replicating the experiment.

  • Blood was drawn at 1-hr intervals for analysis. [Focus is on the blood draw]
  • We drew blood at 1-hr intervals for analysis, but we soon fell asleep on the lab bench. [Focus is on the researchers]

In the (Subjunctive) Mood

Use the subjunctive to indicate that the situation described is potential or contrary to fact, not actual.

  • Correct: I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener.
  • Incorrect: I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener.
  • Correct: If the cages had been locked, the mice would not have escaped.
  • Incorrect: If the cages were locked, the mice would not have escaped.

Sometimes it seems more modest or objective to use the subjunctive voice. (After all, your calculations might be wrong.) But the possibility of error is not enough to invoke the contrary-to-fact use of the subjunctive.

  • Correct: It is more effective to administer a smaller dose at more frequent intervals.
  • Incorrect: It would seem that a more effective treatment might be to administer a smaller dose at more frequent intervals.

Use would to convey a habitual action (“The mice would run on the exercise wheel”) or a condition that is not actual (“The mice would run if they had an exercise wheel”). Avoid using it to distance or hedge statements. Your writing will be more powerful and persuasive if you own your own observations, opinions, and conclusions.

  • Joybelle Malcolm says:

    Jun 21, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Thank you for writing on this topic because I faithfully use Grammerly and this is an area of concern for me in my academic writing journey.

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