I'm a non-native speaker and currently writing on a thesis in English. I'm struggeling to avoid the past tense. Accoriding to my advisor I'm supposed to write the thesis in present tense. But this makes sentences like:

... are already described in section XYZ.

wrong, right?

It would be great to get some general advice how to avoid this.

PS: Can I use past tense for summaries?

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    "...you can/will find in section XYZ." However, you are talking about a section in the report itself, that is not part of the actual subject of the thesis, so I would say the past tense here is quite acceptable. Another possibility in the past tense: "...found/described in section XYZ." (without the "are already" in front of it). – MorganFR May 24 '16 at 10:34
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    Described is not past tense here, it is a participle (confusingly called the "past participle" - but that's entirely incidental). It happens to look identical to the past tense, but that's an incidental too! – Araucaria May 24 '16 at 11:29
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    @Araucaria Quite so. You could equally say will be described. – WS2 May 24 '16 at 11:33
  • Your advisor may be trying to get you to use the active voice for a more engaging tone. That is, instead of "The code was written. The code was run. The results were collated and presented in figure 5.", consider writing this way: "Figure 5 summarises the results of running the ABC algorithm on the PQR data set." – Lawrence May 24 '16 at 11:36
  • @Lawrence I don't believe there's a reference to any particular algorithm or data set, I believe the section XYZ is just another paragraph or chapter located somewhere else in the thesis paper. – MorganFR May 24 '16 at 11:39

Sentence like “... are already described in section XYZ” are certainly not wrong, and, as already has been said, are not past tense. Although there is nothing wrong either with “... have already been described in section XYZ”, which is in a past tense. Indeed, the past tense indicates that the description you mention precedes the current page in your thesis, which the present tense does not.

I find this modern trend of writing scientific summaries in the present tense quite unnatural, and asking you to do this in a thesis seems perverse in the extreme. I always insisted that my students used tenses as follows:

Past tense: To describe what you did or thought (especially in the Summary and Results and Methods sections).

e.g. I therefore decided to investigate whatever… and conducted experiments in which…

Present tense: Universal ‘truths’ (especially in the Introduction and Conclusion)

e.g. The synthesis of proteins is controlled by…

As well as reading more naturally (note also the use of the first person singular rather than the passive) it avoids the ambiguity in a Summary of whether you are talking about your own work or that which someone else did before you (especially for sentences in the passive). I find that irritating, and it is good policy to avoid practices that might irritate your examiners (to which I would add in-group acronyms).

That’s my advice. Take it (if your supervisor will let your) or leave it. (But you could ask him why he wants you to write about past events in the present tense. I’d be interested to know.)

  • While this is very good advice, the question was about "are described in section XYZ," which is present tense. – Peter Shor May 24 '16 at 14:37
  • @PeterShor — OK. I've added an opening para addressing that. – David May 24 '16 at 15:52

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