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.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

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.