Unnecessary Past and Future Tense Can Cause Doubt and Confusion

Past Present Future sign postUnnecessary past, future, and other verb tenses and constructions can cause avoidable doubt and confusion on the part of your readers/listeners. When you use the past tense unnecessarily, readers may ask themselves if what you’re talking about is still relevant in the present and future. If you use the future tense unnecessarily, readers may ask themselves if this is the case now, or under what circumstances it will be the case in the future.

I’m not sure if this propensity to over-use past and future tense is due to laziness, ignorance, bad habits, or the culture (all of these). Maybe it’s a fear of the present. The past isn’t so scary, because, well, it’s in the past. The future is somewhat unknown and well, things may change, right? But why not be in the present, be in the moment? I don’t get it. Maybe we really don’t know the meaning of is.

When in doubt, technical communicators should use the tense that is the simplest, most direct, accurate, and imposes the lightest cognitive load on readers. Often times, this means using the present tense. Don’t fall for the linguistic gymnastics that you think might either; (1) make you look/sound smarter, or (2) give what you write/say some legal/grammatical wiggle room vis-a-vis reality or the truth. Our job as technical communicators is to make it easy for our readers to understand and act upon what they’re reading or hearing.

Of course there are exceptions. If your audience/purpose/context calls for lots of future and past tense, then by all means, use it.

Here are some ripped-from-common-parlance examples of what I’m talking about. Notice I didn’t write: “…what I will be talking about” or “…what I was talking about.”

“We are updating our Terms of Service.” (Microsoft site)
This begs the question, just when will you complete the process of updating your ToS, and how will I know that you updated it?

The Past is Prologue?

“I liked that house.” (HGTV Love it or List it)
When/why did you stop liking it? Home shoppers on this TV show are literally still standing in a home, or in the driveway and talking about it in the past tense. I’m dumbfounded by this.

“That house had a great backyard and master bath.” (HGTV Love it or List it)
When did it stop having a great backyard and master bath? Did someone dig up the yard since you were there? Was there a fire?

“This item was out of stock.” (email received from overseas vendor)
That’s fine. Is the item in stock now? If not, when will it be available? I’m not sure how this company stays in business with such poor sales communication!

When Does the Future Get Here?

“This course will take a minimum of 2.5 hours to complete. It does not need to be completed in one sitting.” (eLearning course intro)
Two sins here, the future tense and an inanimate object (course) with a need. My version: This course takes a minimum of 2.5 hours to complete. You do not have to complete it in one sitting.

“The purpose of this style guide is to document a consistent look and feel that will encourage consistent design, maintenance, ease of use, and navigation.” (Style Guide intro)
The future tense introduces doubt. And there’s another problem, encourage. It’s probably better to say that the guide describes consistent design for the purposes of… The guide itself is a guide. It’s management’s job to encourage/enforce it.

“Today’s how-to is going to be on replacing the serpentine belt on a 1999 F-150 5.4L V8.” (Youtube video description)
Why not say: “Here’s how to replace the serpentine belt on a 1999 F-150 5.4L V8.” It’s six words shorter and doesn’t involve the future tense. It’s a lot clearer what we’re talking about, right?

“This deal will require the approval of regulators.” (Wall Street Journal)
Is it a deal, or is it a pre-deal? Does the deal require approval now, or does something else have to happen before it requires approval? Why introduce unnecessary ambiguity?

“Your discount code will expire on August 2, 2015.” (Email from vendor)
Why not write that the code expires on August 2. Fewer words, less confusion. Less really is more.

Writing less complicated sentences using the present tense is less work for your readers/learners/doers. Isn’t that what technical communication is all about?

Consistency…or Three Chefs in the Kitchen?

WSUS ScreenshotConsistency in technical communication means that we’re consistent about grammar, construction, voice, etc, within a document, a set of materials, or an entire system. We generally refer to and follow a style guide that helps us, and our editors, keep us consistent. Software developers follow the same principle. Or at least they should.

Here’s an example where there are obviously three opinions about how to label different versions of the Microsoft Windows OS.

Windows 7 Professional and Windows XP Professional were there first. Next they added Windows 8.1, notice the decimal and one place to the right of the decimal, and the missing Professional. And most recently, they added Windows (Version 10.0). Here notice that they put Version 10.0 in parentheses and again omitted the Professional.

I find this in the recently released Microsoft Update Services 10.0.10514.0.

If I were editing this, I’d change this list to display as:

  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • Windows 10.0 Pro
  • Windows 7 Pro
  • Windows XP Pro

Following a parallel pattern such as this makes it easier to recognize differences.

Three Words I Always Look for When Editing (need, which, utilize)

Want versus Need imageThere are three words that I search for (and often edit) when reviewing a document. Even before skimming or reading a document, I often search for these words to get a flavor of the quality, tone, grammar, and formality of the writing. If you read, write, listen, or edit, you probably see, hear, or edit these three words quite a bit.

The three dirty words are:

1. Need, Excessive Neediness

Need is probably the most tortured and abused word in the English language. It’s dropped almost everywhere. And dropped inappropriately, I must add. I call it Excessive Neediness. There are two rules that I follow when looking at need.

  1. Only animate objects have needs. Non-living objects cannot possibly have needs.
  2. Political or emotional use. Used as an emotional or pleading-type of appeal.

A poorly crafted email message says that this project needs to be completed by the end of the week. Interesting. Projects have needs. Didn’t know that!

A biased newspaper article may explain that a certain agency of the government needs more of our money in the form of higher taxes in order to…

2. Which Versus That

My experience is that writers and speakers often use which when they should use that as the relative pronoun. In section 5.202 of my Chicago Manual of Style, I find that that is “used restrictively to narrow a category or to identify an item.” “Which is used non-restrictively – not to narrow a class or identify an item – but to add something to an item. “Which should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition (e.g., the situation in which we find ourselves). Otherwise it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash.” The confusion usually arises when which or that are used as relative pronouns to introduce adjective (or relative) clauses. The rule of thumb, is that which clauses are nonrestrictive (nonessential to the meaning of the sentence) while that clauses are restrictive (essential to the meaning). Note that rules and customs in British English may be different.

I think that writers want to be more formal, or appear to have given their writing more thought. They think that which lends their writing a little more formality.

This article from Get it write online gives a good explanation and a few examples. There are certainly many examples…

3. Utilize Versus Use

Utilize is a fussy non-word in my book. It doesn’t add anything to a sentence that use doesn’t already handle. Instead of utilize use use, or better yet, an even more descriptive and accurate verb or sentence structure.

Leave the Unnecessary Out, Out of Your Writing

Get the out outToo frequently, the word out is used with certain verbs when it is completely unnecessary, and in fact grammatically incorrect. Here are some examples:

  • Coupons will be emailed out in December
  • Please print out the documents before the meeting
  • Send out an email to staff to tell them about the changes
  • Separate them out
  • Please fill out all required fields

Check a dictionary

If you check a dictionary you’ll find that these verbs do not carry the bonus out at the end:

  • To print out
  • To send out
  • To separate out
  • To mail out
  • To clean out
  • To rent out
  • To empty out
  • To tweet out

Emphasis should be on the root

When your read or hear someone say send out, you may notice that the emphasis seems to be on the word out. The emphasis should be on the root verb, send. Isn’t the construction so much better without the out? Most writers and editors know this. I wish all writers would catch on.