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Verbs: Where the Action Is

Andrea Wenger

Verbs are the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. They can make a sentence powerful and direct, or weak and meandering. In technical communication, verbs help us clarify who must act and when. But verb usage guidelines for descriptions differ from those for procedures. The context affects audience needs.

Properties of Verbs

Verbs have five properties:
  • voice (active and passive)
  • mood (indicative, imperative, and subjunctive)
  • tense (past, present, future, and their perfect counterparts)
  • person (first, second, and third)
  • number (singular and plural)
Chapter 5 of The Chicago Manual of Style offers a good refresher on these terms.

A verb’s number is a purely grammatical consideration—the verb must agree with the subject. The other properties, though, are a choice the writer or editor must make. In technical communication, there are good reasons to choose one over the other.

Verb Use in Procedures

Most task-based writing uses active voice, imperative mood, present tense, and second person to convey what the reader must do. People who aren’t technical communicators sometimes feel uncomfortable writing in this way. So they send us source material that reads “The door must be opened,” when they mean “Open the door.” They feel rude telling people what to do. But “Open the door” doesn’t sound rude to readers. It sounds clear. Readers like clear.

Here’s a procedure that doesn’t follow the recommended verb usage. Note that it is inherently unclear:

To remove the power plant, the operator must open the enclosure door. Then he can lift the protective cover. The captive screws securing the power plant are loosened. This will allow the power plant to be removed.

This wording raises some questions:
  • Must the operator lift the protective cover, or is this optional? (Use of the indicative rather than the imperative mood)
  • Is the protective cover too heavy for a female to lift? (Lack of gender neutrality resulting from the use of third person)
  • Are the screws already loosened, or must the operator perform this task? (Use of the passive voice)
  • Should the operator remove the power plant at this time, or should that step be performed later? (Use of the future tense)

The following wording, which uses the recommended verb properties, eliminates these questions:

''To replace the power plant, follow these steps:
  1. Open the door.
  2. Lift the protective cover.
  3. Loosen the captive screws that secure the power plant.
  4. Remove the power plant.''

Verb Use in Descriptions

Some technical writing is not task-based, however. When you’re writing or editing descriptions, different guidelines apply. Description may be in active or passive voice; in past, present, or future tense; and in second or third person.

Description is generally written in the indicative mood. Its purpose is to inform, not to instruct. Descriptions can appear on their own or within a procedure. Consider the following:

''Select File > Print.
The Print dialog box opens.''

The sentence “The Print dialog box opens” is not written in the imperative mood because it isn’t an instruction. Rather, it describes what the software does.

You could also use the passive voice in this case: “The Print dialog box is displayed.” In The Global English Style Guide, John R. Kohl writes, “Passive voice is appropriate when the agent of the action is unknown or unimportant.” So don’t put yourself through convolutions trying to recast a sentence just because it uses passive voice.

Present tense is not required in description. However, as Kohl writes, “Use the simplest tense that is appropriate for each context.” In technical communication, verb phrases like could have been installed and will not have been reset confuse readers and tax translators. But it’s not wrong to say You must accept the terms of use before you can continue. Despite the use of auxiliary verbs (also called modal verbs), the sentence is clear and direct.

The above example (You must accept the terms…) uses second person. In description, however, third person is more common: The X45 limit switch is a rugged device designed for use in dusty environments.
The proper use of verbs is key to good technical communication. Once the verb is right, chances are, the rest of the sentence will fall into place. If your time is limited, focus on the verbs first. Well-chosen verbs are a gift to the reader.

Andrea is a senior technical writer at Schneider Electric. She blogs about grammar, style, and other writing topics at andreajwenger.com. She can be reached at andreajwenger at gmail dot com.

Page last modified on Thursday, May 20, 2010 12:43:51am EDT
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