Posted by: Jack Henry | September 18, 2014

Editor’s Corner: More mad modals

This week, I’m on a modal verb kick. Today, I’ll provide you with a little more information about modal verbs and explain why we should try to minimize their use in technical documentation. Remember, last week I said modal verbs help you with a certain “flavor” in your writing. Maybe that flavor is some kind of formality or wish to sound extremely polite or as if you have no expectations for a situation. In technical writing, we want the facts! We want to be straightforward with our writing and make sure there are no misunderstandings. The “flavors” we are looking for are crisp and sharp.

· You can use modals for speculation and probability:

o Bill should have been here by 6:00 p.m.

o It must be difficult raising two children by yourself.

o If you click Enter, the transaction should be processed.

In technical writing, we want to concentrate on concreteness and exact information:

o Click Enter to process the transaction.

· You can use modals to discuss ability:

o She could crochet better than her grandmother.

o Mr. Farrow can speak three languages.

o The system could calculate the monthly mortgage payment if you entered the total loan amount and percentage rate.

In technical writing, we want to know precisely what the system can and will do under certain circumstances:

o Enter the total loan amount and percentage rate to calculate the monthly mortgage payment.

· You can use modals to indicate obligation.

o You must complete these steps before you can continue.

In technical writing, you want to be direct and straightforward. You don’t want to change the intended meaning of the sentence, but consider the following revision for the previous example:

o Complete these steps before you continue.

Tomorrow: Merry mondegreens.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

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