Using a gerund phrase for procedure topic titles?

Subject: Using a gerund phrase for procedure topic titles?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 2 Jan 2002 09:46:53 -0500

Chuck Martin wonders: <<For many years, I've used as the title for
procedural topics (in online Help) the gerund phase: Creating a New
Document, Changing the Modem Settings, and so on. But I see in Office 2000,
Microsoft seems to have changed this (at least in Word). Now I see the
simple form of the verb: Create a New Document, Change the Modem Settings,
etc. So I'm wondering: is one or the other better for users to find and

I'm more familiar and comfortable with what you call the "gerund phrase"
approach, though strictly speaking, this approach uses a present participle,
not a gerund. (For example, one gerund form of your examples would be
"creating is my life"; in a gerund, the participle becomes a noun, not a
verb.) There are arguments in favor of both approaches, but brevity
certainly isn't one of them: changing the imperative to a present participle
adds only two letters (from -e to -ing), and if your headings are long
enough that this makes a difference in usability, the verb form isn't the
real problem. <g> Moreover, my experience with Microsoft's online help
suggests that they're not a good example of "best practices"; on the
contrary, much of what Microsoft does is counterintuitive and counter to
accepted practice, and I tend to treat their advice and usage with
considerable suspicion. They're not always wrong, but...

<<Does anyone know of any research in this area?>>

Not offhand, but even if I did, I'd hesitate to recommend it to you; such
issues are a matter of preferred and learned style, not absolute right or
wrong, and different audiences will have different preferences. If you've
been using "creating" rather than "create" for years and nobody has
complained, then the odds are excellent that your audience is happy with
your choice. Forget about this issue and concentrate on the real meat of
your job: creating descriptive headings and useful help text.

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

"When ideas fail, words come in very handy."--Goethe


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