Future tense in tech writing?

Subject: Future tense in tech writing?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 16 Nov 2000 10:38:17 -0500

Harry Hager suggests <<Forget about the "display" part... I want to talk
about the "will" part. How many of you use future tense in your technical
writing? I've always avoided using future tense in technical writing.>>

I try to avoid "will" unless I'm really talking about something that belongs
in the future and has a reasonably definite time when the event will occur
(e.g., "Microsoft Reminder will send e-mail on that future date to remind
you to...", "this process will take at least 5 minutes, and possibly up to a
maximum of XX hours"). The problem with using the unadorned future "will" is
that it provides no clear indication of _when_ the future event will happen,
and draws the reader out of the present (what I'm doing now) into a
different tense (what happens in the future), then back to the present to
continue with the present (next step that I'm doing).* And worse yet, system
crashes, bugs, and other "features" often mean that _will_ becomes _will

* This leads to temporal dislocation, as all science fiction writers know.
Not a good thing.

<<The only reason I'm writing this is that nobody else has mentioned it so
far. This surprises me.>>

True enough, but it has been discussed several times over the past 8 years;
check the archives. I'm as guilty as anyone about answering the direct
question and not exploring whether it's the correct question to be asking in
the first place.

<<Why use present tense only? When a user is reading a set of instructions
and performing a set of instructions, each step is occurring in the present
tense as related to the user.>>

That certainly fits my experience. Though in retrospect, it occurs to me
that we still have the same problem with system crashes etc.: our
instructions blithely assume the entire process works smoothly, but when
"life happens", the reader is still left feeling cheated. Not a huge
problem, but still...

<<I've always considered this (using present tense) as one of the basic
rules of technical writing. Am I wrong?>>

Yes, provided that (as you and I both noted), you recognize that any rule
has clear exceptions, such as the ones I pointed out earlier in this message
and your own observation that there are some cases where future tense is
appropriate. When we start applying rules blindly, we stop thinking about
whether the rules are always appropriate.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

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ancient text had proved to be a manual for installing a sewage system within
a city."--Julie Czerneda, "Changing Vision"

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