Using tenses appropriately (was: Feeling tense about tense)

Subject: Using tenses appropriately (was: Feeling tense about tense)
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 22 Mar 2001 11:36:12 -0500

Bal Simon finds the discussion about tenses, which are more than a bit
important to techwhirlers, <<... far too abstract... How about some
examples... MiddlePoint enables a special technique for capturing the data
and using it.>>

There's a second aspect to this that complicates the issue somewhat, and
that's a combination of voice and the reader you expect to process this
information; your example is ambiguous because it's unclear who or what MP
enables: does it let _me_ do something, let the _software_ do something, or
let the person who installed my computer do something? Setting it in the
present tense is the right choice: it provides immediacy (_you_ can do this
_now_). Setting it in the past tells us the situation changed, so if you'd
said "MP enabled", you immediately raise the question "what has changed, and
what does the change mean for me?" Conversely, if you set it in the future
("MP will enable"), you raise the questions "_when_ will it enable?" and
"under what conditions will it enable?" With both the past and the future,
you take the reader out of their present situation and ask them to make
predictions about what will happen (respectively, that they'll have to
accomodate a change or wait for some event to happen).

<<...When B responds, MiddlePoint captures its response and then passes it
back to A. This technique significantly affects system overhead. Processing
time is added while the communication is taking place.>>

This excerpt continues in the present, talking directly to the reader, then
abruptly shifts into passive voice, which is disruptive. The second part
should be "The communication that takes place increases processing time" or
better still "...slows the process" (i.e., speak to the reader's needs).
Ditto for "The advantage lies in that the captured data can then be modeled
at one's leisure": change this to something like "the advantage is that you
can [the user can? the software can?] model the captured data at your [its?]

<<How would it look written in future tense.>>

Something like this: "B will eventually respond [when?], after which
MiddlePoint will capture the response and pass it back to A. This technique
will significantly affect system overhead and will add processing time while
the communication is taking place." You've lengthened the text, but added no
compensating advantage for the reader. The question to ask is this: what
information does the future convey that the present doesn't convey better?
If the answer is "nothing", then there's no reason to use future. If
indicating that the event is not happening as we speak, or depends on
something else uncertain happening, then there's a case for the future.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"How are SF writers like technical writers? Well, we both write about the
things we imagine will happen in the future!"--Sue Gallagher


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