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The Present Tense in Communications

Man typing on white computer keyboard

No, we're not referring to a gift from Uncle Fred or Aunt Ethel — at least not this time! Rather, we're referring to the tenses as used in English grammar. Whether we choose to speak or write in the past, present or future tense, can make a big difference to the success of any plain-English communications we may use.

Here's a simple one-sentence guideline that I suggest you can apply to ensure that you are indeed communicating in "plain English":

  • Use the present tense, 2nd-person voice, unless you have good reason to use another tense.

So, if we speak plainly, what does that really mean?

Let's explore this rule in more depth.

In writing and speaking, we can communicate in three ways or "voices":

  • 1st person voice — examples include: "I", "me", "we".
  • 2nd person voice — examples include: "you", "him", "her".
  • 3rd person voice — examples include: "they", "them", "those".

Some key tips:

Most business and plain-English writing tends to work best when we usually address the reader as an individual. Example: "You".

Therefore, when appealing to your reader in a personal sense, think carefully before writing in the 1st- or 3rd-person voices for more than just a few words.

Generally, 2nd-person voice offers the best pay-back in most instances. Examples:

  • How are you today?
  • I'll go with him.
  • Do you know her?

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