© 2012 by Marv Goldberg

Tempus fugit. Time is fleeting. Each year seems to go faster and faster as we get closer and closer to the final chapter of the Big User Guide.

Humans are bathed in time. Poet Delmore Schwartz put it this way: "Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn." Ain't it the true, chillun, ain't it the true? Our lives are inextricably linked to time.

As children, we yearn for the day when we'll be old enough to do what we want to do. As teenagers, we become existential, only seeing our own here and now. Later, we anticipate vacations; we dream of retirement; we look back in anguish wondering what rabbit hole our seemingly short lives have vanished into. Finally, we resort to "they knew how to write manuals when I was a kid" stories.

Some live for today under the theory of carpe diem (something to do with "seize the carp", if I'm not mistaken). Many spend their lives fantasizing about tomorrow; others constantly live in dreams of yesterday.

There's a full continuum of time reflected in our rich language. We do things, we did things, we have done things, we will do things. Things are done to us, were done to us, will be done to us. "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York". "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away". "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day". It goes on and on.

Except when it comes to our manuals. For reasons that elude me, software manuals are mired in the present tense. Don't get me wrong, most of the time it makes perfect sense. It's usually easier to read and, in truth, a real-time program runs in the present. But not always.

A construction such as: "if you make the wrong choice, you will see black smoke pouring out of the computer" is both grammatically correct and instantly understood by anyone reading it. But of course we can't say that. Nope. We're forced to say: "if you make the wrong choice, you see black smoke pouring out of the computer". Why? Oh why? Oh why? Every time I encounter a sentence like that, I cringe. There's no need for it. These are cause and effect serial events: if the first thing does happen (in the present), the second thing will happen (in the future; even if the future is only seconds away).

What we're doing here is compressing time to give the impression that everything happens all at once. Think of the ramifications of this: if everything happens all at once, we've eliminated time, which means that there's no "last minute", which further means that all our projects will be late (since everyone knows that if it weren't for the last minute, nothing would ever get done).

I've started thumbing through various manuals to see how others tackle the problem. Guess what? They don't. They simply use the future tense and don't worry about it. I've looked at hardware manuals, air conditioner manuals, vacuum cleaner manuals, camera manuals. They all do it: they all use the dread "will" with impunity.

Why do we need to be different? A corporate standard should be one that makes a company stand out in a positive way, not just be different. Different isn't good, it's just, well... different. When we have unconventional clumsy grammatical constructs as standards, all they do is annoy both us and our customers without adding the slightest value to our products.

When my son was around five, he liked to make up games (a normal part of growing up). Of course, in an attempt to control his environment (not easy for one of that age), his games had rule after rule after rule. The games ended up being unplayable, since no one could remember all the rules. (He couldn't either, although he'd never admit it.) It took me a long time to convince him the games that were the most fun had the fewest, simplest rules.

Possibly it's time to find and do grievous bodily harm to the Faceless Standards Committee that makes up our rules. For the sake of our customers, isn't it about time we were allowed to write like real people? (Notice that I just used the forbidden passive voice. Don't get me started!)

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