Re: Future Tense Controversy

Subject: Re: Future Tense Controversy
From: "Richard G. Combs" <richard -dot- combs -at- voyanttech -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 2004 09:08:19 -0700

Mary Block wrote:

> Our department writes training manuals, IS user manuals, and company
> policies and procedures. We have always written these in present tense,
> active voice. The lawyers are now wanting us to write everything in future
> tense (and thus putting it in passive voice).

As Dick said, what everyone said... ;-)

But I think Dick is on target. I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the lawyers
are worried about the company policies and procedures portion, and that
they're looking for imperatives and expectations. As litigious as our
society is, there are huge liability issues related to company policy
documents. Here are a few snippets from an "Electronic Usage Policy" doc
that just happens to be handy:

"...employees shall not use any electronic communications device in a manner
that would violate..." [imperative]

"Any employee who uses any electronic communications device will therefore
be subject to corrective action, up to and including termination, for..."
[future, setting expectations]

"Vendor licensing regulations will be followed for all commercial software
installed..." [imperative]

"The IT Department will inspect the company's computers periodically to
verify..." [future, setting expectations]

Like Dick, I'm inclined to use second person for the imperatives: "Follow
vendor licensing regulations...," "Don't use any...device in a manner that

I'm less sure of what to do about some of the expectation-setting
constructions. Because of word connotations or whatever, "The IT Dept.
periodically inspects..." just sounds less forceful than "...*will*
inspect..." And "you can be punished" seems wimpy compared to "you *will* be

I suggest you take a look at your policy docs with an eye toward how
imperatives and expectations are expressed, maybe come up with some
alternatives for how to express them, and then sit down with the lawyers and
talk about how to best satisfy their liability concerns. Remind them that
clarity, directness, and readability can be issues with legal ramifications,

But, remember, I'm not a lawyer and this isn't legal advice. ;-)


Richard G. Combs
Senior Technical Writer
Voyant, a division of Polycom, Inc.
richardDOTcombs AT polycomDOTcom
richardDOTcombs AT voyanttechDOTcom
rgcombs AT freeDASHmarketDOTnet


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