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I'm writing a technical user guide for a piece of software and am not sure whether I should be using a comma or not when giving instructions. Which of the following is correct?

To add a new item click on a 'File' menu and then select 'Add'.

OR

To add a new item, click on a 'File' menu and then select 'Add'.

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If the target readership is totally non-computer-literate, they might already be unnecessarily confused by instructions that randomly alternate between click on and select for identical actions. If they're supposed to be even a little more "savvy", it would be better to just say ...select File->Add. In a technical guide, you're going to have to write similar text very often, so the shortest intelligible format is probably best (put a note once in a foreword if you really think they won't understand the convention). –  FumbleFingers Nov 22 '12 at 18:42

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Yes, use the comma. It makes the sentence clearer than if there's no comma. Sometimes commas are unnecessary, and sometimes they help. In this case, I had to read the comma-less sentence twice to separate item and click. Readers don't like have to read the same thing twice to be able to understand it. If what you're saying is inherently difficult to understand, that's one thing, and the readers have to deal with their own intellectual limits. But if it's merely a matter of writing mechanics and punctuation, it's your job as a technical writer to make everything you write as clear and as easy to understand as possible. That's what I try to do all day long.

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The reason you are uncertain might be that the sentence should be written in a different form entirely. You are burying the action "click on File" in the middle when that ought to be the focus.

If you want to place the statement of purpose before the action, then either make "To add a new item" a heading to be followed by the instruction or place it in a separate cell of a tabular presentation.

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