Usage and Grammar

Q. I am a technical writer responsible for procedures used by electronics technicians. I am struggling with the best choice among documents I’ve inherited: the use of will, shall, must, are to, should (or anything better?) in sentences such as the following: “Work will not be performed on energized components if the surrounding area is wet.” This use of “will” is very off-putting to me; my choice would be “should.”

A. Word choice depends on the precise meaning you want to convey; it’s not a good idea to restrict yourself to a single choice. I agree that “should” fits well in the sentence you quote if it’s intended as an instruction. “Will” works in a statement about what someone is planning to do. The use of the passive voice probably contributes to your indecision, although I realize it’s the way such manuals are conventionally written. But why not rebel and write clearly and directly? Write “Do not work on energized components if the surrounding area is wet,” if that’s what you mean. I hope you’ll campaign to improve the texts you’ve inherited.