Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Do you have the willies?

I’ll tell you a story. I’ll tell you no lies.
Grammatically, there isn’t a blessed thing wrong with using will as a verb auxiliary. If you look it up, you will find that I’m correct. If you enter a signed comment and satisfactorily respond to the Captcha challenge, your comment will appear. So don’t get me wrong here. I will not tell you that using will is grammatically wrong.

But in technical writing, particularly in American English (British English tech writing has different conventions), the best practice is to avoid the use of will unless you are talking about a future event. Enter your street address and city. The software looks up (not “will look up”) your zip code.

Why did this become a rule? Simple. Technical documents are written for a broad audience that may include a significant number of people for whom English is not the first language. Different languages have different arrays of tenses and different ways of indicating them. For a software user who is not a native speaker of English, will may always trigger the assumption that the writer is discussing a future event, even though that’s not always what the word means to a native speaker. The sentence then becomes ambiguous: The software looks up my zip code as soon as I tab over to the next field, the software will look up my zip code tonight, during a batch process, or the software will look up my zip code when the next version is released? I can’t answer that question with any confidence until I run a test case, and my boss told me not to run test cases because they will corrupt the database. So I’m confused; and if I’m confused, that means the technical writer let me down.

Where there’s a will, there’s a potential for confusion. If you are trying to communicate unambiguously in a context where you do not know the linguistic capabilities of your audience, don’t have the willies.

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