None of us thinks twice about giving instructions in everyday life:
- Look both ways before crossing the road!
- Please send it to me.
- Sit! (if you’re a dog owner like me)
- Brush your teeth every day.
These are all commands – officially called ‘imperatives’.
Yet, if we asked a hardened bureaucrat to write these instructions, the odds are we’d end up with something like this:
- It is recommended that an individual wishing to cross the road should first look in both directions.
- I should be grateful if you would kindly send it to me.
- Dogs are advised that they should sit down.
- It is advised that teeth should be brushed daily.
Fear holds us back
Many people seem to have a fear of giving instructions when they write. The excellent Plain English Campaign says, “The most common fault is putting ‘customers should do this’ or ‘you should do this’ instead of just ‘do this’.”
Perhaps people worry that commands sound too harsh so try to soften an instruction by making it more indirect? But this lessens the urgency.
We often address the concern that we’ll sound rude when giving an instruction by adding the word ‘please’. However, the Plain English Campaign cautions, “If something must be done, it’s best not to say ‘please’ as it gives the reader the option to refuse the request.”
How to use commands
Take these everyday examples of long-winded phrases and their equivalents expressed as commands:
- Writers should aim to be punchy.
- Be punchy.
- You should just think of it as a complete statement.
- Just think of it as a complete statement.
- They should be split where possible.
- Split them where suitable.
This last example is probably the worst because it also uses a passive verb. (See my post on this here). Unfortunately, this is a common mistake in instructions. For example, an instruction might typically state:
- The packet should be removed from the box. The contents should then be placed in the oven.
This instruction would be much more direct and authoritative if written as two commands:
- Remove the packet from the box. Then place the contents in the oven.
Call to action
I should be grateful if this post could be ‘Liked’ and commented upon.
Like this post. Then comment on it (please).
And if you’d like some help with your writing, please get in touch!