76. Tenses of Citation Verbs



A verb of saying/thinking between an abbreviated reference and a quotation or paraphrase needs a special reason not to be in the present simple tense



A citation has two parts: repetition of something first said in another document, and information about that other document. The repetition can be either the exact original words, thus creating a quotation (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation-Writing) or just their message, as a paraphrase or summary (see 80. How to Paraphrase). The document information – normally called a “reference” – usually includes the names of the original writer(s), the document title, and the year of its publication. If the document is a book, the book publication details are also given, whereas if it is a journal or web article, the title of the journal/website is added.

References are given in different ways in different academic disciplines, but one of the most widespread ways is the “Harvard System”. Its approach is to give the information twice: once in a short form next to the repeated idea/message, and again in full at the very end (in a bibliography alongside full details of every other document that has been used). The short form accompanying a quotation or paraphrase usually comprises the author’s surname, the date of the document’s publication, and, where possible, the relevant page of the document, e.g. Jones (2013, p. 78). Common abbreviations found there and in bibliographies are explained in the Guinlist post 130. Formal Abbreviations.

Short-form references must be linked in the right way to the quoted or paraphrased words. There are various possibilities: many are illustrated in the University of Manchester’s English Phrasebank, and interested readers are also referred to the posts within this blog entitled 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text,  79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing and 127. When to Use Indirect Speech.

However, there is one particular kind of link that can give grammatical problems to writers whose mother tongue is not English: use of “citation verbs”. These are mostly verbs that express different kinds of saying and thinking, such as ARGUE, ASSERT, BELIEVE, CONSIDER, EMPHASISE, FEEL, FIND, INDICATE, MAINTAIN, MENTION, NOTE, POINT OUT, SAY, SHOW, STATE, SUGGEST, THINK, WONDER and WRITE (for more examples, see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech). A typical use might be:

(a) Jones (2013, p.78) argues that social benefits can assist escape from poverty.

In this example, the citation verb is in the present simple tense. Sometimes, however, verbs of this kind have other tenses, and it is this that I want to investigate here. It is not the only challenge that using citation verbs throws up. Others are considered in the posts 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing,  94. Essay Instruction Words,  104. Naming Data Sources with “As”,  107. The Language of Opinions and 132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4 (#4).

The use of English tenses is hardly considered elsewhere within these pages. However, readers seeking more about it may be interested in 147. Types of Future Meaning and 171. Aspects of the Past Perfect tense.


One might think that past tenses should be used with citation verbs, on the grounds that the original message was given in the past. However, present tenses – like argues in (a) – are probably more common, at least in the human sciences. Indeed, it seems useful to assume that present tenses are the norm, and that alternatives can only be used in special circumstances. These circumstances can be listed as follows.

1. Famous Statements

Famous statements are familiar to most ordinary people as well as to academics. If there is a citation verb, it tends to be in the past simple tense (the main exception is when the speaker is still alive):

(b) Shakespeare said that the whole world is a stage.

As this shows, such citations usually lack a date after the author’s name, presumably because the author is so familiar. Reports of this kind are not especially common in academic and professional writing, but they do occur.


2. Historical Statements

The past simple tense is also preferred when the reported message is felt to be old-fashioned or first said a long time ago:

(c) A distinction between two types of knowledge, “knowledge that” and “knowledge how”, was proposed MANY YEARS AGO by Ryle (1949).

(d) Krashen (1981) was ONE OF THE FIRST to emphasise the importance of emotional well-being for successful language learning.


3. Research Rather than Ideas

Research is something people do, as opposed to something they say or think. Reported research is far more likely than reported statements and opinions to have a past simple tense verb. Typical verbs are asked, investigated, studied, researched, examined, measured, counted, experimented with, surveyed, discovered, uncovered, established, found, showed, demonstrated and recorded. Reports like the following are common:

(e) Hughes et al (2006) investigated the effects of new legislation on academic performance.


4. Collective Ideas and Research

Sometimes it is not appropriate to mention a single originator of an idea or research achievement because many different people contributed to it over time. Consider this:

(f) Historians have proposed numerous reasons for the scale of World War 1.

The originators of this reported idea are a group of people, historians. Because they published their ideas at different times, there is no date, and no further details are given in the bibliography at the end (the only way to achieve this would be by naming one or two example historians after the general report above). The verb (underlined) is in the present perfect tense. It could also be in the present simple tense (propose).

The present perfect emphasises that the work of the historians in question goes back in time. It is thus similar to use 2 above of the past simple tense. It is preferred to the past simple, however, because there is no date. This choice follows the standard rule for the present perfect that it should be used when a past event has no explicit or understood time reference.


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