Future tense in instructions?

Subject: Future tense in instructions?
From: Geoff hart <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "'techwr-l'" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 21 Jan 2000 09:17:25 -0500

Sybille Sterk has <<...a dispute at work. So far I have avoided the future
tense wherever possible, because from what I gathered it is not used in
technical documentation as it expresses a certain amount of doubt like it is
expressed in "may" or "might".>>

The problem of future tense is not that it might be misinterpreted as "may
or might", which is possible but quite unlikely for anyone with English as a
first language. There are, however, two commonly cited problems: first, it
is generally passive (will be displayed = by whom or what?), and second, it
provides no clear indication of time (will be = when... in 10 minutes? after
I get mad and pound on the keyboard?). The second objection strikes me as
weak; the first one is more serious, in part because you should always try
to make the actor clear whenever that's relevant, and in part because
passive voice is generally wordier than active voice.

<<"When you click the X button the X dialog is displayed">>

Nothing seriously wrong with this, though some frown on "when" constructions
because (i) the display appears _after_ you click, not _when_ you click, and
(ii) this is descriptive/narrative (telling a story) rather than imperative
(telling someone what to do). Imperative voice is usually better because it
speaks more directly to what the reader wants: task-based instruction. (The
descriptive approach is more appropriate for general instruction in which
you're providing a context or overview rather than for task-based
instruction.) My preference for steps in procedures is as follows:

For an introductory step: To print [optional: your document], click the X
button. The X dialog appears.
For an intermediate step: Click the X button. In the dialog that appears,
[continue the instructions]

<<When you click the X button the X dialog will be displayed>>

Again, the problem with "when". "Once you have clicked" would be more
grammatically correct if you prefer this style. Again, "appears" is much
shorter than "will be displayed", is much more direct, and eliminates any
uncertainty (will = will eventually, appears = it's going to happen now, in
response to what you just did). I've seen some argument against "appears"
(e.g., "appears to be what?"), and had reservations about this verb myself
back when I began techwhirling, but I now find the arguments unconvincing.
If you're skeptical, "will display" is perfectly acceptable, since "display"
is both transitive (the most commmon form) and intransitive (as here). You
can also say "Word displays the print dialog box" to identify the actor, but
naming the application isn't often necessary.

--Geoff Hart, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"The paperless office will arrive when the paperless toilet
arrives."--Matthew Stevens

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