The Grammarphobia Blog

Finishing touch

Q: I’m hoping you might comment on what I see as the widespread abuse of a verb tense in instructions: “When you are finished Step One, etc.” Shouldn’t it be “When you HAVE finished Step One, etc.”? I’d like to see this abuse finished – that is, lights out! But maybe I’m missing something here because I’m seeing it all the time.

A: No, I think you’re right on the money. It would naturally be incorrect to say “When you are finished step one….” (And no, I don’t believe in unnecessarily capitalizing “step one,” as many instructional manuals do.)

Here are a few of the correct ways one might write this thought: (1) When you are finished with step one…. (2) When you have finished step one…. (3) When you have completed step one…. (4) When you have done step one….

The verb “finish,” by the way, dates back to around 1350, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I couldn’t find a single example of the construction you cited in the OED’s 40 published references for “are finished.”

Here’s a citation for “finish” at work in the 1697 Dryden translation of Virgil’s Georgics: “He call’d, sigh’d, sung: his griefs with day begun, / Nor were they finish’d with the setting sun.”

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