The Present Tense in Technical Writing

rogersgeorge on October 14th, 2017

Here’s the rule:

Use the present tense to indicate customary behavior, no matter when it happens.

That’s right, when you do something, something happens. Doesn’t matter whether you’ve actually done it yet. Here are a few examples:

When true, the boolean indicates acceptance; when false, it indicates rejection.
When you press Enter, the window appears.
When I get hungry, I eat!
Tomorrow I go to the dentist.
Every day I get up before 6:00.

Maybe you’re writing instructions for operating a machine that hasn’t even been built yet. Use the present: When you turn the key, the engine starts.

When may you use the future? I can think of four times:

  • When you want to be vague:  Someday we will get married.
  • When the time is important:  Tomorrow I will go to the dentist, but the next day I won’t
  • For a command:  You will clean your room! (In military tech writing they use “shall.”)
  • When something isn’t customary: We will go on the trip if we can ever get the car started.

By the way, this is a good rule even if your writing isn’t strictly technical.

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An Interesting Use of the Future Tense

rogersgeorge on February 28th, 2017

I generally advocate not using the future tense in expository writing, saying that you should use the present tense for customary actions no matter when the action happens. But here’s a usage that I haven’t seen for a while. It hinges on context, in this case temporal context. First the quote:


Pope Julius II dies. He will lay in rest in a huge tomb sculptured by Michelangelo.

First, of course, let’s ignore that they used the wrong verb, “lay.” It should be LIE in rest!!! harrumpf.

Okay, on to the lesson.

This is a line from a this-day-in-history-type post from another site. In effect, the line says “Today five hundred years ago…” Also in effect, the sentence is a headline. Both of these usages pull the chronological context to now, and in terms of now, he won’t be interred for at least a day or so.

So in that context, the interment is in the future, and it certainly won’t be a customary action but a, well, once-in-a-lifetime event, so you can get away with using the future tense.

You would also be perfectly correct casting the whole sentence in the past tense, keeping yourself in the 21st century:

On this day in 1513, Pope Julius II died. They intered his body in a huge tomb sculptured by Michaelangelo.

But that doesn’t convey the hint that it was a while before the body entered the tomb, which wasn’t completed for more than 30 years. And today the body is in St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m not certain that he ever even occupied the tomb! Not that that has anything to do with grammar…


rogersgeorge on November 23rd, 2016

This is a grammar lesson of sorts. In school, you were not taught something about verbs because English doesn’t formalize it, but it’s important in several other languages, particularly Slavic languages and Hebrew (which is where I first learned about this).

The something is called Aspect.

Aspect is hard for me to define but it has something to do with tense, but not exactly. Tense is where in time you place something. “I run” is the simple present tense; it happens now. “I ran” is the simple past tense, it happened in the past. But what about “I am running” and “I was running”? We call these progressive tenses, but the difference between these and the simple past and present is aspect.

Let’s think about the simple present. It can refer to the future, sort of. “Click the × in the upper right corner. The window closes.” This is using the present tense of close to indicate that something is customary. This customariness is an aspect.

In high school, my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Baird taught us to conjugate verbs, and she had one form that included the helping verb “to be about to.” So we had “I am about to run.” I don’t remember what she called this form, and I have searched all over for it and can’t find it in a conjugation anywhere. Maybe it had something to do with her study of Sanskrit. Anyway, this seems to be another use of aspect.

Why am I writing about this rather abstruse subject? Well, for a while I was studying Greek and Hebrew at the same time, and it occurred to me that Greek verbs showed aspect, even though this was never mentioned in class. Then recently I ran into a scholarly article about aspect in Greek verbs! It’s so scholarly I won’t even link to the article, though if you want to take a look at it, email me and I’ll send you a pdf. To give you an idea what you would be in for, here are two sentences:

For the sake of simplicity this chapter focuses primarily on perfective and imperfective aspects, concerning which there is the most consensus among New Testament scholars, and on the indicative mood. However, it will be suggested that a time-relational approach also offers potential for explaining the aspect of the perfect and pluperfect tenses, and that of the future tense in the nonindicative moods.

So now you can say you know something about English that almost nobody else knows!

Future Perfect

rogersgeorge on July 15th, 2016

You hardly ever see the future perfect tense any more. I ran into an example the other day in a book I’m reading (Big Science—Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik.) Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a device that the bigger you make it, the better it works. But to make it bigger, you need rich patrons, which he was good at getting money from. The device turned out to be instrumental in building the atomic bomb, and the rest is history, you could say. The LHC in Geneva is its direct descendant. His practice of obtaining large amounts of money and large teams of participants has led to about all of our current high-tech culture, from the space program to video games. Here’s the sentence, written by Ernest in a letter to his parents:

If the work should pan out the way I hope, it will be by all odds the most important thing I will have done.

There, at the end, we have a future perfect. Verbs deal in some way with time, and that’s how we name them, past, present, future. Other languages deal with time somewhat differently, but that’s a topic for another day. The genius of the perfect tenses in English is that they convey the idea of something happening over a stretch of time, and then ending. For example,

I have lived in this house all my life.

That’s present perfect; I lived for a period of time (all my life) until now, the present.

How about the past perfect? Something happened for a stretch of time, and ended in the past.

I had lived in that house until I got married. Then I lived in a mansion.

And the future perfect? Something happens for a stretch of time that ends in the future.

If I live another five years and don’t move out, I will have lived in this house for fifty years.

Keep your ears open—maybe you’ll catch an occasional future perfect.

And just for grins, here’s a picture of the first and third or so cyclotron. That’s Ernest on the right. Photo via google.

It’s not Telling the Future

rogersgeorge on June 13th, 2016

Some expository writing is called technical writing.  Other types include essays, theses, and non-fiction articles. This rule applies particularly to technical writing, but it has its place anywhere you mention a result. Here’s the rule:

Use the present tense whenever you describe customary behavior, even if it takes place in the future.

The future is for when the time is important, when you want to be vague, or to add emotional emphasis.

A couple examples:

  • When you turn the knob clockwise, the volume gets louder.
  • Press Enter. The cursor moves to the beginning of the next line.
  • Mercury will pass in front of the sun in thirteen years. (Present tense also works for this one if the context is the recurring behavior of celestial events.)
  • Next Tuesday the axe will fall.
  • If you turn the knob clockwise, the volume will get louder someday.
  • I’ll mow the grass
  • If I walk in that poison ivy, I will get a rash!

Rule of thumb: If you can use the present instead of future, use the present.

The rule used to be that you use “shall” with the second and third person (you, he, she, it, they) and “will” for the first person (I, we). Mercifully, that rule has gone by the wayside and we use “will” for everybody.

What happened to “shall”? It’s used for requirements, as if it were an imperative.

  • The hull shall withstand incident pressure of 500 lb/square inch.
  • All players shall wear the complete team uniform.
  • You shall be home before midnight.

Well, you don’t see that last example so much any more, either.