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Future Tense Verbs vs. Present Tense Verbs in Procedures...Which Is Correct?

Discussion in 'Documentation Control, Procedures, Templates,...' started by GStough, Jun 10, 2016.

  1. GStough

    GStough Member

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    This may be an old topic that has been covered many times in the past, but please humor me. I learned long ago that it is more correct to write procedures using present tense verbs rather than future tense. For example, "the operator shall record the psi for leak testing..." or "the inspector will perform visual examination of product and will record defects..."

    The reason, as I understand it, is that future tense verbs imply that the actions described are not yet active, have not yet occurred, and thus, records may not have been created yet. However, when written in the present tense, this indicates that the process is active, current, and being documented.

    I'd like to see what others have to say about this - is there a right or wrong way to write procedures (present tense vs. future tense), or does it really matter so long as the process is accurately described in the procedure?

    Thanks in advance.
     
  2. Candi1024

    Candi1024 Well-Known Member

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    I don't think it actually matters, I'd say it's just better technical writing.
     
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  3. GStough

    GStough Member

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    So, which are you saying is the better technical writing - future or present tense?
     
  4. Andy Nichols

    Andy Nichols Moderator Staff Member

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    English majors will have a field day...

    Well, to me it's a lot about the culture of the organization. I've seen stuff written "willing" people to do things. That style is an indicator of the process of development of instructions - obviously it's without input from those doing the job. I'd wager that many/most people who have to do this work wouldn't even quickly recall future/present/past tense, since they'd be "turned off" when reading them. My personal preference however, is to use whatever style of instruction suits the people doing the work... Ask them!
     
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  5. Candi1024

    Candi1024 Well-Known Member

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    I'm sorry, present tense. As in an operator reads the instructions and will do as it says. Open the door: Turn the key: Tap your head and spin in a circle.
     
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  6. GStough

    GStough Member

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    Well, Andy, in this particular scenario, the person doing the work is ME (and a few other people, but mostly me), and the style of instruction that suits me best is the present tense. I cannot stand to read procedures that "will" or "shall" someone to do things! It's much like nails on a chalkboard....

    Thanks, Candi1024 and Andy. I appreciate the responses!
     
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  7. Andy Nichols

    Andy Nichols Moderator Staff Member

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    Totally agree!
     
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  8. Ganesh Sundaresan

    Ganesh Sundaresan Active Member

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    To me, any tense is acceptable, unless otherwise it has the ability to put the user of the document in a tense situation :)
     
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  9. RoxaneB

    RoxaneB Moderator Staff Member

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    While I believe future tense is better technical writing, let's go back to the purpose of the procedure. Personally, I'd rather they were used as part of or to support training of new employees, not to mention that whole audit/assessment activity, and in my experience, reading present tense resonates better.

    "Press the 'start' button to activate the machine." versus "The operator shall press the 'start' button to activate the machine."

    Present tense then reads like a checklist and a person can see if the step was followed. On the downside, it can be more difficult to indicate who is responsible for carrying out the activity in present tense unless you write "The operator presses the 'start' button...". A possible way around this is:

    "1. The operator is responsible to :
    a. Turn the key.
    b. Press the 'start' button.
    c. Do the hokey-pokey.
    d. Turn him/herself around."​
     
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  10. Bev D

    Bev D Moderator Staff Member

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    I think instructions should be written for the person doing the job. I hate reading about myself in the second person. and I don't really care about grammar and correct statements. I just need to know what to do without contacting my lawyer.
    the simpler the language the better; it's far less confusing and to the point. and pictures are best. so present tense is better. work instructions shouldn't be written for auditors or trainers. so your last example makes the most sense...
     
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  11. ncwalker

    ncwalker Well-Known Member

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    At which point one has to ask - can I make my work instructions icon driven?

    Were I to hand one of you my smartphone, if you were not familiar with it, you would be pretty functional with it in a relatively short period of time. Because the icons make sense. (Yes, there is also a "back" button where you can safely back up levels, so a machine needs a wee bit more instruction. But ... pictures are better than words.)
     
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  12. hogheavenfarm

    hogheavenfarm Well-Known Member

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    At my previous job I had to do this due to the cultural mix and various levels of literacy. I created a "Visual Procedure Manual" which consisted of icons, illustrations and pictures for the entire product build. So many people found it helpful I continue to make these, although here I have added some subtitles for the more literate.
     
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  13. _Zeno_

    _Zeno_ Member

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    I prefer something very similar to Roxanne's approach with some minor adjustments.

    My personal preferences:
    • capitalize and bold the verb (one verb per instruction line)
    • the word "the" is rarely (if ever) needed
    • periods are not needed
    • the best case scenario is 6 words or less for each step (LESS IS MORE, do this / do that)
    • names of document references, buttons, computer keys, etc are in blue bold italics with font 2 pts smaller than rest of text
    • additional cautions / notes / additional information on second line (hard return to prevent new line number), font smaller
    • always take photos against white background, remove background in GIMP (freeware), save as PNG to preserve transparency (this permits maximum flexibility in sizing and locating photos in document)
    sample wrk instruction.jpg
     
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  14. ncwalker

    ncwalker Well-Known Member

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    At Zeno ...

    BELOW and ABOVE are prepositions, not verbs
    Requiring usage of fingernails is discriminatory against people without them.

    :)

    Just messing with you. That's actually really clear and a good example. I could certainly operate this with these instructions. Props to you for saving the pictures with the clear background. It DOES make it nice.
     
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  15. _Zeno_

    _Zeno_ Member

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    Good catch. I'll need to make an exception to my rule or simple downgrade it to a suggestion.

    And, you know, you can't really trust anyone without fingernails.
     
  16. Eric Twiname

    Eric Twiname Well-Known Member

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    Methinks the "Tense" part got worked out already....what I noticed was "Voice".

    Whether present or future tense...both of your examples are in passive voice. I write procedures in Active Voice...which for the most part mandates present tense.
    Zeno's picture example is a good example of instruction in active voice...'Do this, do that' instead of 'the operator will do this'.

    Just preference...but perhaps an important one for the reader.
     
  17. ncwalker

    ncwalker Well-Known Member

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    You're supposed to write for something like a 5th grade reading level. "Do this, do that" is far superior to "the operator will do this." Also, from the standpoint of number of characters and kerning, less is better. Oft times these sorts of things are hung up on the back of a work station. Us old guys have trouble with 10 pitch at arms length. :)
     
  18. dibdab

    dibdab Member

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    16 years ago I developed a "paperless" system to meet ISO 9001: 2000 to the automotive requirement TS16949. Yes we had procedures written in the present tense, but at the "coalface it was brevity.
    1 A flowchart which showed for instance a production unit which could be anything between 30 and 800m long. Clicking at identified locations took you to:-

    2a Control Plans for the Product, which gave the name of the unit, the product being manufactured, and in columns
    Location; Action Required; Reason; Frequency; instrument needed; Spec/Standard/reference to a field on a plc: who; where reported; a link to a referenced procedure or work instruction.
    b A Process Plan which specified checks to be done on the equipment at the start or through the shift or when technical criteria had been achieved,
    chart.
    The "who" could be an operator, team leader, inspector, engineer, or even auditor.
    By linking these together it met the automotive requirement for "Quality Plans" and the work instructions addressed Safe Working Practices.

    Very Simple; very clear; controlled paper copies were allowed in remote locations
     

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