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?