Grammar: Is this phrasing a waste of words, or does it make sense?
March 15, 2012 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Grammar: Is it better to say that a committee "will be implementing a new policy" or "will implement a new policy"? I favour the latter because it seems more succinct; however, all my colleagues use the former convention. What am I missing? Does their way make more sense, grammatically or stylistically? Or is this just a collective habit that they've all adopted and I should avoid picking it up?

Other examples:

"We will be looking at the file" instead of "We will look at the file."

"We are planning to look at the file" instead of "We plan to look at the file."

"I told the client I would be contacting the finance department" instead of "I told the client I would contact the finance department."
posted by cranberrymonger to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm on your side. It's not grammatically incorrect to do it how your colleagues do, but "will X" is better than "will be Xing" because it takes out the useless, excess words.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:14 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


To me, the first example in your sets should be followed by some type of time based clarifying phrase. "We will be looking at the file later/tonight/next week/at 5/etc." while the second example is a complete statement in itself.
posted by theichibun at 8:15 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Omit needless words.
posted by blue t-shirt at 8:16 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


They are two different tenses with two slightly different meanings. Your preferred tense is the simple future tense, while your colleagues seem to prefer the future continuous tense.

As the second link (and theichibun) note, absent the clarifying modifier, they are using it improperly. [insert standard anti-prescriptivist caveats.]
posted by gauche at 8:19 AM on March 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Hijacking my own question: Is it better to say something "has been changed" or "was changed"? Does the same policy of "omit needless words" apply here?
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:19 AM on March 15, 2012


It's a waste of words.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:21 AM on March 15, 2012


Use "will be implementing" over "will implement" if the policy involves something that that takes time or effort (or the appearance of either) to do.
posted by devnull at 8:21 AM on March 15, 2012


One of the secrets of good writing style is cutting down on overuse of "is/be," because it is such a bland verb.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:21 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


The connotation of their conjugation seems to imply more openness; it makes it sound more like something else could be happening while they're doing whatever it is, or that they're announcing an intention while leaving the door open to suggestions OR making it sound like even the planned activity is subject to change. Perhaps there's a subtle but real reason (business culture, maybe?) they're phrasing things like that.

The "will be doing x" and "will do x" constructions can be used interchangeably, and so their usage is not wrong. But it does give a different impression about the certainty of what's to come, I think.
posted by clockzero at 8:22 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Follow-up: it's not that one or the other is "better". It's that they do slightly different things, and using them interchangeably is therefore slightly imprecise. This is true of both of your questions.
posted by gauche at 8:23 AM on March 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


A case where 'will be xing' is better would be: "We will be constructing the new building during the month of March."
posted by empath at 8:24 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my experience, use of the future continuous tense without the clarifying modifier is a sly way of deferring future followup. When someone says "I will do thing", there is an assumption (again, in my experience) that this will happen immediately, or at least soon, whereas "I will be doing thing" implies that it might happen soon, but it might happen at some point in the distant future. Following up on "I will do thing" tends to get a response of "oh, I haven't done it yet, sorry" while following up on "I will be doing thing" tends to get a response with a vague clarifying modifier: "I said I would be doing thing at some point, but not yet" (with the related implication that the asker is being impatient.)

did I mention this is just in my own experience?
posted by davejay at 8:29 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think they are both correct in their own way, although stylistically I agree with your preference.

Also, while I'm not sure that their style is necessarily "passive voice," it comes dangerously close to it IMO, and that's something that I think needs to be stomped out with extreme prejudice. Though I don't normally hold up the US Military as a paragon of clarity in written communications, they at least take a stand in this regard.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:56 AM on March 15, 2012


"Has been changed" should most correctly be followed by some sort of time statement.

"The policy has been changed since we last looked at it."
"The rule has been changed for some time now."

Versus:

"The policy was changed."
"The rule was changed."

You would never say, "The rule has been changed for legal reasons." In that case you would use the "was changed" construction.
posted by Night_owl at 8:57 AM on March 15, 2012


> In my experience, use of the future continuous tense without the clarifying modifier is a sly way of deferring future followup. When someone says "I will do thing", there is an assumption (again, in my experience) that this will happen immediately, or at least soon, whereas "I will be doing thing" implies that it might happen soon, but it might happen at some point in the distant future.

This is exactly right. It's not a matter of grammar or of "omit useless words," it's a matter of framing the action intended. Feel free to say "I'm going to do X," but be aware that it connotes a strict promise rather than a vague intention, and don't be surprised if someone later calls you on it.
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on March 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


> Also, while I'm not sure that their style is necessarily "passive voice," it comes dangerously close to it IMO, and that's something that I think needs to be stomped out with extreme prejudice.

You're not sure what the passive voice is, but you think it needs to be stomped out with extreme prejudice? You've been reading too much Strunk and White and too little actual grammar. Here you go. (Note: Geoff Pullum cowrote the standard grammar of English. He, unlike S&W, knows whereof he speaks.)
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on March 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


> Has been changed" should most correctly be followed by some sort of time statement.

...

You would never say, "The rule has been changed for legal reasons." In that case you would use the "was changed" construction.


This is completely wrong.
posted by languagehat at 9:01 AM on March 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


From gauche's links:

We use the simple future tense when there is no plan or decision to do something before we speak. We make the decision spontaneously at the time of speaking. Look at these examples:

Hold on. I'll get a pen.
We will see what we can do to help you.
Maybe we'll stay in and watch television tonight.


The future continuous tense expresses action at a particular moment in the future... When we use the future continuous tense, our listener usually knows or understands what time we are talking about. Look at these examples:

I will be playing tennis at 10am tomorrow.
They won't be watching TV at 9pm tonight.
Take your umbrella. It will be raining when you return.


Leaving aside strict matters of grammar and logic, looking at wording as a tool of communication, I'd say the "we will be doing something" form suggests that a) the matter has been given some thought, b) whatever is being announced likely does not come into effect immediately, and c) if you have some cogent reason why this should not be done, your objection has a chance of being heard.

Summary: "We will be doing X" comes across as more thoughtful and less dictatorial than "We will do X".
posted by philipy at 9:05 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


In The Prisoner, Number Two would say "Be seeing you", not "See you".
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:09 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Active vs. passive voice
posted by Clustercuss at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2012


My point was more that, even though (at least in the examples given) it isn't truly passive voice in a grammatical sense, it seems to be functioning in the same weaselly way that passive voice is often used in corporate communications. It's really that attendant 'weaselliness' that needs to be stomped on, rather than the grammatical construct itself.

It is unfortunate that 600-67, S&W, and other style guides go specifically after the "passive voice," when their goal is really the broader one of avoiding weaselly, responsibility-avoiding (or -deferring) language. There are doubtless situations where a passive clause construction is the correct choice for maximizing clarity, and its use is unfairly discouraged. Perhaps it would be better if they just called this undesirable language something else, rather than appropriating a term of art that already has a very specific meaning.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:06 AM on March 15, 2012


Thanks for the answers, everyone! I even learned something from the slight derail. :)
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:27 PM on March 15, 2012


From the answers given I like those given by philipy, but I want to add another part of understanding.

Disclaimer: My English grammar is awful despite it being my native language, but in learning Russian this seems like an issue of aspect, or at least concerned with the same linguistic-meanings that you have to taken into consideration with conjugating verbs in Russian.

When you say: "will be implementing a new policy," the implication is that this policy is one that will take place over time, perhaps because it's a large policy that will be implemented in a stage-like process. Whereas when you say: "will implement a new policy," the implication is that there is a new, simple policy that will be implemented in one moment in time, and will be fully completed and realized at that moment.
posted by SollosQ at 1:05 PM on March 15, 2012


Some have pointed out that there is a slight difference in tense-related meaning.

Others have pointed out that "will be doing x..." is slightly more vague, and implies less of a direct commitment.

This is indeed similar to the passive voice, which is often used to avoid or defer responsibility.

But....There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Often people like Kadin2048 say that the passive voice should be "stamped out" because it's "weaslly", but the fact is that often weaslly is exactly what the speaker wants. Maximum clarity is, in reality, an obstacle to normal social functioning much of the time. A little bit of wiggle room or ambiguity serves a useful role in communication.

This is the function that "will be doing X...." serves most of the time, and it's a perfectly valid one.
posted by zachawry at 4:37 PM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's really that attendant 'weaselliness' that needs to be stomped on

Ridiculous. What you don't communicate is just as important as what you do. This is especially so at work, where perhaps you don't want to promise a millon things you can't deliver. (Or need to end discussion on an unimportant topic that a superior is mysteriously fixated on.)

"will be implementing a new policy"

This implies that is a process, perhaps involving an unknown number of steps. Just saying "we will implement" implies a that it will be a discrete, identifiable event.

They are different tenses with different meaning.
posted by spaltavian at 7:03 PM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's really that attendant 'weaselliness' that needs to be stomped on, rather than the grammatical construct itself.

People are not robots. And it's unpleasant to communicate with people who act like robots in the workplace. There are plenty of honest reasons to take advantage of phrasing variants to convey nuance.
posted by desuetude at 9:52 PM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


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