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.

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The subjunctive

rogersgeorge on March 4th, 2014

English verbs can exhibit a feature called mood. Moods have to do with the the reality of what you’re speaking (or writing) about. That might not be a very useful definition, but you no doubt recognize the names of the moods from grade school. You use the indicative when you’re asserting something to be true. You use the interrogative to ask a question.  The imperative is for when you give a command. And the subjunctive is for when something is not real. In English, most verbs don’t have a separate form for the subjunctive; you have to figure it out from the context.

However, the verb to be does have a subjunctive form. It’s were. Now that looks like the past tense form, so you still need some context. The context you need is some way to say that the situation is not real. For example, if you were to start a sentence with If, you should use the subjunctive.

If I were in better shape, I could swim farther. But I’m not, so I can’t.

The normal past tense (indicative) is I was. I need the subjunctive because I’m not actually in good enough shape. Could, by the way, is a modal auxiliary, and I don’t want to get into those in this post, but note that you have to write could instead of can because you’re using the subjunctive. This is intuitive for native speakers of English. People generally get the could-can dichotomy right, but people fairly commonly get the main verb wrong, saying “If I was in better shape..”

Another contextual indication of the subjunctive is to express a wish, and that leads us to today’s comic grammar lesson, and a reminder that we parents should always tell our kids the truth, from Zach Weiner’s excellent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Interesting use of “technical writer”

rogersgeorge on November 29th, 2013

A recent article in The Register criticized Google’s Eric Schmidt for, among other things, his (lack of) ability as a technical writer. Since this blog is mainly about expository writing, of which technical writing is a subset, I feel a need to share. Here’s the passage I’m referring to:

…Schmidt goes on to show he’s not conversant with the gentle art of technical writing with procedures that use inconsistent verbs, fail to open each step of a procedure with an active verb and make assumptions that lead to user-befuddling ambiguities.

Gentle art, eh? I’m flattered. Eric’s instructions are too long to quote here (you can find a link them in the article), but the criticisms mentioned in the quote above are worth noting for your own writing.

Inconsistent verbs…active verb. I’m not sure what the writer is referring to here, but when you write instructions, you should use the imperative. Do not say “Please.” Give one instruction per step. Tell the result of following the instruction correctly. (Do not write the result as a separate step!)

User-befuddling ambiguities. Ambiguity is the bane of technical writing. You should write so your material is interpreted exactly one way. Have someone follow your instructions. If they get something wrong, fix the writing. Do not whack the person upside the head for being stupid.

Tech writing has a lot more features, and I saw several other tech writing mistakes in Eric’s material, but I won’t go into them here.

Now in Eric’s defense, he is not a technical writer. He’s an extremely successful businessman with lots of money. (Warning: shameless plug ahead) If his intent is to write a good set of instructions (and not a marketing piece disguised as tech writing) maybe he should hire (ahem) a good technical writer to write the instructions for him.

Google's Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt. Image credit: AP

Getting on your case

rogersgeorge on September 27th, 2012

I don’t know why I’m being so hard on comics lately. Usually comic artists are pretty careful about their use of language, and I have a lot of respect for them, what with having to not only draw, but also write, two very different skills, neurologically speaking. This one is from a comic I don’t read regularly. I saw a link to it on a website that I do read, and this was on the first page. I got locked onto the solecism and haven’t read anything else. It looks like it might be a nice adventure tale for those of you who like that sort of comic, PG rated, I suppose. The comic is called Valkyrie, by By Fernando Heinz Furukawa and I don’t know what the comic is about. Shame on me for generalizing after looking at only one page, but judging from the non-human sidekick and the cleavage,  it looks like it’s aimed at boys in their early teens. The link is to the page where I got this cell.

The speaker might be in character to make the goof, and the artist actually knows better, right? After all, with a Spanish/German/Japanese name, he ought to be really good at English, right?

You know what the mistake is, right? We have a nominative being used as a direct object. Nominative is the general term for what my English teacher called the subjective case, because it was used for the subject of sentences. In every other Indo-European language (far as I know) they call it the nominative.

Remember your English teacher saying that with the imperative, you have an implied subject, “you”?  So “Sit down” is really “(you) sit down.” Or in this case, (you) let Sandra and ME deal with your son’s abduction.”

I brought your attention to this example because this mistake most often happens with compound objects of prepositions (it was between him and I) and less often with a direct object. It often happens in the writing and speech of people who fancy themselves as edumacated. They picked it up from being corrected as children, when they started to say something like “Me and Tom went fishing” and the authority figure at hand said, ” ahem. Tom and I went fishing, and is that why you are so muddy?”

So how do you prevent this solecism? The culprit the compound construction. Say the sentence without the compound. Then the wrong way sounds wrong. So: “Let me deal with your son’s abduction.”

Now I think I’ll go see what happened to that son.