Getting verbs right part 3

rogersgeorge on February 24th, 2012

This lesson is also about technical writing, but it applies to expository writing in general. It has to do with how you shouldn’t use the future tense.

Rule: Don’t use the future tense unless you really, really have to. Use the present instead.

The present tense has a, shall we say “flexible”¬†connection¬†with time. The standard use is to describe what’s going on right now, in the present. The present tense has (at least) two other uses, though. It can describe the past by placing the reader into that past event.

So a minister, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “What is this, some kind of a joke?”

A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Why the long face?”

That’s the present tense: (They) walk. The bartender looks.

This one is as old as the hills

The other use of the present is to describe customary behavior. If something always happens that way, use the present, not the future. In the context of giving directions, you tell your reader what to do (use the imperative), then tell what happens if they do it right. Notice I just wrote “what happens,” not “what will happen.”

Open the File menu and click Save as. The Save As dialog box appears.

Tighten all six bolts to 24 foot-pounds to prevent gas from escaping.

So when may you use the future tense? When you want to be vague. When something is not customary. When something might not happen.

Climb down from that tree or you will break your neck!

One of these days I’m going to stop procrastinating.

But when you’re explaining something, use the present.

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