Three Reasons to Favor the Infinitive in User Assistance

Verbs that can be made gerunds by adding ingThree Reasons to Favor the Infinitive Form

In user assistance titles and text, should you use the present participle (ing form), or the infinitive, for example; Baking a cake, or Bake a cake? Here are several reasons to use the infinitive form rather than the ing form.

1. The infinitive is shorter and easier to understand

The infinitive has fewer letters than the present participle, and easier to read and understand. The infinitive imposes a lower cognitive load, and has a faster comprehension speed. Here are two examples; set versus setting, skip versus skipping. Which would you rather do; set the table or be setting the table, skip this step, or be skipping this step?

Here’s another example.

Stopping, Restarting and Continuing Numbering (41 letters)
Stop, Restart and Continue Numbering (32 letters, or 22% shorter). Shorter is generally better, but how can we quantify better?

Flesch-Kincaid Readability Scores

We can measure readability using the Flesh-Kincaid score. Let’s compare some examples using Readability-Score.com and their Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Copying and Pasting Rows – Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 54.7, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 6.6
Copy and paste rows – Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 75.9, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 3.7

2. Write from the audience perspective. How do we search? What do we want to do?

As the user assistance writer, your task is to describe the process of (insert present participle here) (insert noun here).” For example, what’s the process of starting the engine. Meanwhile, your audience may be asking themselves, “how do I start the engine?” This is what they search for. If you’re not a writer, you may have heard about Voice of the Customer campaigns. These are designed to help company associates think/act/listen/speak in the voice of the customer. When we use the same terms as our users/clients/customers, it obviously aids understanding, n’est pas?

When we search for how to do something, which of these do you think we generally put in the search field; “resize rows,” “resizing rows,” or “how to resize rows?” We’re not likely to enter the present participle form.

Imagine I’m driving and somehow damage a tire. I’ll probably think or even say out loud; “how do I fix a tire? Or “how to I change a tire? this is what I’d search for or perhaps speak into the search on my phone.

Writer versus User/Performer/Reader Perspective

When writing about something, the writer might think “what are the users/performers doing?” This might lead the writer to use the present participle form. Users/performers, however, might think or ask “how do I do something?” This leads to the infinitive form. It’s part of audience analysis to put yourself as the writer into the perspective of the audience.

3. The infinitive implies that we can accomplish the task and move on

Would you rather peel some potatoes or be peeling some potatoes?

Once and done or ongoing/repeating?

Finite time, not ongoing. Users want to complete a task. They want to do something. They’d rather not be completing it or doing it. The ing form implies that the task takes time, or that they may have to keep doing it, or worse, redo it. We want to do something then move on the the next task. The present participle form makes it seem as though the task may take a while to accomplish or be something difficult, or something we’ll have to keep doing over and over.

What do the buttons say?

Look at the buttons/commands in almost any application. You’ll see; Enter, Submit, Apply, Edit, Move, Copy, Confirm, Hide, Find, Go, Save, Preview, Continue, Publish, Discard Changes, Cancel, Import, Export, Backup, Select, Log in, Log out etc,. You get the point. Buttons use infinitives. Users search using infinitives. Shouldn’t your user assistance use infinitives so it matches what users do and what they look for?

I’m certainly not arguing (see…using the present participle) against present participles in all situation, just many situation in user assistance.

In addition to using the infinitive, consider using the present tense.