Smart verb tenses put your instructions into action

Truis Ormsby-Martin | September 7, 2017

I learned at school that verbs are ‘doing words’. If doing is what I need, I want my verbs to help that message along, not hinder it.

Many instructions use verbs in the future or past tense. People like me who write a lot of instructions fall into the same habit; we see it so much. I wouldn’t even blink, reading:

You will forward a sales opportunity form to Marketing whenever you have identified a possible sale.

But this habit can work directly against our goal.

Since school, I’ve added some learning. The only ‘tense’ I want from a verb is because it’s timed, not tiresome. To get readers to act on my message immediately:

This post talks about using the present tense to get action right now, how passive verbs sap a reader’s will, and why the simplest verb form is usually the most effective. Join my campaign for better verbs — make a new habit of using the four methods at the end.

Future tense gives your reader ‘a round tuit’

The word will suggests your reader can follow your instruction when they get ‘around to it’. Future verbs imply future action — they can do it maybe later today, tomorrow, or next week.

Few writers get the luxury of instructing our whole audience aloud. Relying on words alone, our readers miss out on tone, expression, and gestures (no, emoji don’t count). If readers can’t hear and see a speaker’s tension — or lack of it — every word plays a bigger part in telling them about its priority.

An effective instruction has not a single sloppy verb.

Psychology Today – How we communicate through body language
The Telegraph – Using emojis makes other people think you are incompetent, research finds

We all know that tomorrow never comes

Slip into your imagination for a moment. You open an email from your boss, and read this:

You will read the attached policy and start applying the new rules at once.

How much urgency do you feel? Is your first impulse to put everything else aside and open the policy document? After all, your boss says ‘at once’. But that could mean ‘as soon as you’ve read it’. If you’re anything like me, you’d close this email, flag it as a to-do item, and then go on to the next message.

Image, camera crew on set.

How actors and set crew react to a director’s instructions makes or breaks a movie. Image by State Library and Archives of Florida / Public

Policy needs an effective rule of thumb

I often see policy and business rules in the future tense, even in excellent writing. For instance, I expect you could easily understand what to do if you read:

The receiving officer will check and sign every application, then will have the service manager check and counter-sign it.

This example uses direct, clear, and simple language — great! But now I imagine myself as the receiving officer reading it. I feel distant and detached from the instruction. I know I need to do it… at some stage. I have an emotional blank about applying this rule, right now, to the application in my hand. I may end up following the rule, but with a much weaker sense of its importance.

A business rule is important, so you usually want the reader to act on it every time, now and in future. How? Dust off your time machine, and pull the future into the present.

Use words that do, not words that sit waiting

I despair over instructions that use both the future tense and the passive voice:

Every application will be checked and signed by the receiving officer, and approved by the service manager.

The passive compounds with the future tense to push action even further away. With my receiving officer hat on, I’m thinking about what’s expected of the application, not of me.

If you’re committed to plain language, you’re already picky about when you use the passive voice. (I certainly was, in the above paragraph.) Double your caution about passives when you write direct instructions.

Read more about passive voice

Image, chef carefully plating a fine dining meal.

A chef can only run a top-notch kitchen if their team follows their recipe to the letter. Image by / CC0 1.0

Avoid getting tied up in the moment

Some instructions need to describe events or actions in the past or future. Some ways to show verb tense use more words than others. But the extra words may be irrelevant.

These examples all use the verb ‘to want’, at different times.

Ask which product the customer wanted.
Ask which product the customer did want.
Ask which product the customer had wanted.
Ask which product the customer has wanted.
Ask which product the customer was wanting.
Ask which product the customer has been wanting.

Ask which product the customer will want.
Ask which product the customer will be wanting.
Ask which product the customer will have been wanting.

Ask which product the customer is wanting.
Ask which product the customer does want.
Ask which product the customer wants.

The last example gets the same action as all the others, but has the most punch. My guideline is to choose the shortest verb form that means what I need it to.

(Purdue Online Writing Lab — Verb tense consistency explains verb tenses as you’d use them in a narrative. But a fluent English speaker understands the differences without needing jargon labels for each verb conjugation.)

In short: today is a present

Plain language is concise. If you need the reader to act now, choose the present tense. ‘Now’ means ‘when you read it’.

For instance, these sentence pairs use the same verbs, but the second is plainer (and shorter).

Future: The disclaimer will appear at the bottom of every page.
Present: The disclaimer appears at the bottom of every page.

Past: If you’ve received an application, check and sign it.
Present: If you receive an application, check and sign it.

You’ll encounter some exceptions. (See? I just made one!) But you can generally use the present tense form of a verb without changing the instruction.

Image, two mountain climbers overlooking a mountain valley and pointing to a waterfall.

A very strong tone is appropriate for an instruction with a life-or-death outcome. Image by Ivana Cajina / Unsplash (modified)

To prod your reader into action, sharpen your verbs

When you write an instruction that needs to wave a big stick, the following methods add force.

1. Keep it simple

Prefer the simplest present tense form of each verb, as I describe above.

2. Use commands

Write an instruction as an order or command, using the imperative form. Instead of The receiving officer checks the form, say Check the form. It’s beautifully direct. An imperative always implies the present, and that the reader is the actor. This method is ideal if you need all your readers to follow the instruction.

3. Add ‘must’

If you need to include who does the action, but with lots of oomph, add ‘must’ to the verb. Instead of Receiving officers check the form, say Receiving officers must check the form. (Use ‘can’ or ‘may’ if you need to soften it. Avoid ‘should’ — it’s easily misunderstood.)

4. Say when

If any doubt could linger about timing, be more specific. Must they follow this instruction ‘always’, or just ‘when the system prompt displays after midday this coming Tuesday’?

Combine methods if you need to

You can combine these methods too. Say I want the tone of the imperative, rather than ‘must’, but I’m writing for several groups. I might decide to write:

Receiving officer: Check and sign the form, and give it to the service manager.
Service manager: Check and counter-sign the form.

Your writing task may be formal procedure with dozens of instructions, or an email with just one. When you proofread, always check the tense and voice of every verb.

Learn more about writing instructions

Our Writing effective user manuals and instructions workshop offers plenty of nimble moves for writing instructions with so much punch, you’ll be a knockout with your readers.

Write’s training workshops help you write other types of documents to carry instructions to your readers, and push them into action.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.