The decline of the gerund in technical documentation?

Louise Downe, who works at the UK’s Government Digital Service, wrote a blog post (Good services are verbs, bad services are nouns), where she stated:

“After several rounds of user testing, the Home Office changed the name of ‘Immigration Health Surcharge’ to ‘check if you need to pay towards your health care in the UK’ – a service that allows visitors to the UK to pay for the cost of healthcare.”

Screenshot of Home office page, where  Heading uses "create"

Now, most Technical Authors would use the gerund “checking” rather than the imperative “check”.

The Home Office is not alone in writing in this way. Here is a link to Help topic in Citrix’s new documentation portal: Create a new deployment.

Why are organisations doing this?

There are a number of reasons why organisations are taking this approach:

  1. Many users of Software as a Service applications are using Search Engines to find answers, and they are typing questions (“how do I create….”) into the search box. Using the imperative means the heading of the Help topics match closely the questions entered by users.
  2.  A lot of websites take this approach, and some organisations believe it feels more modern.

Is this a good change?

This is a positive change if, in the Home Office’s case, the verb is replacing a noun in the heading. It’s also a positive change if it means the Help topic is more likely to appear highly in the Search Engine rankings.

On the negative side, users might feel they are being told an action is mandatory –  they have to check if you need to pay towards their health care, or they have to create a server deployment – when it’s not. If this leads to confusion, there might be legal implications.

To get around this problem, some organisations are taking a slightly different approach, which combines the imperative and the gerund.

Further information

We’ll be looking at this in more detail, together with other new developments in our next Trends in Technical Communication Course – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques training course, which will be held on Thursday 17th September 2015.


Ellis Pratt

We have to keep some secrets back for our advanced course!
I’d completely forgotten about Sarah’s article on the same subject – thanks, Beth.

Alison Peck

I tend to follow Sarah’s suggestion, and have done for some time (house-style permitting): gerunds in the topic/page title (so you want to find out about “Creating a server deployment”, but within the page it often (not always) becomes “Specify the server”, “Assign access controls” and “Test the system” (as if you are reading, you’ve already decided this is want you want to do and know you have a process to follow… you need to do all these things for it to work properly).

In the health care example, it may well be mandatory… it’s in immigration, so is relevant. 🙂

Beth Aitman

@Ellis: Oh, I see! Sorry, I won’t ask you to reveal all your secrets 🙂

@Allison: That’s what we’re trying at the moment too. I’m also experimenting with imperatives in page titles. It looks a bit odd to me, but I think that’s just because I’m not used to it, and it might actually be an improvement.

Niels Grundtvig Nielsen

In this very particular instance, why not “Will you need to pay …”? I agree that the simple imperative gives the (possibly misleading) impression the reader has no choice; I imagine – having led a blissfully inoccent professional life where I have never needed to consider SEO – that staying with an infinitive will satisfy the ‘match title to action’ requirement.
Also, if the whole site is about the UK, I’d be minded to drop “in the UK”.

Ellis Pratt

I guess the “in the UK” is there because some laws and governmental activities are managed by the individual countries that make up the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), and some are managed at the UK level (such as defence).

Steve Riley

I guess this is the key phrase: ‘After several rounds of user testing…’

If it works for humans *and* SEO that’s a great result. But there’s an alarming tendency in some digital corners to worry more about SEO and less about humans.

A friend of mine working on content for a massive organisation is truly gleeful at the moment because his pages with *zero* SEO effort are outperforming those that have been mangled by the SEO ‘experts’. They’re just better pages.

Helen Griffith

I’ve been on the course and am using the combined approach 🙂 Don’t worry, Ellis, your secret’s safe with me!

Diane Skinner

I’ve been using Create (rather than Creating) in help topic titles for years. Just think it sounds more active, less passive. And it’s shorter!


Translations might be another consideration, in some cases. Our tech writing team has been trying to move away from using gerunds – in headings or elsewhere – to improve the translation process. We translate into 20+ languages, and our findings at least have been that gerunds are problematic in several languages. The imperative is more direct and straightforward and results in fewer questions in the translation process.

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