Should Gherkin Steps use Past, Present, or Future Tense?

Gherkin’s Given-When-Then syntax is a great structure for specifying behaviors. However, while writing Gherkin may seem easy, writing good Gherkin can be a challenge. One aspect to consider is the tense used for Gherkin steps. Should Gherkin steps use past, present, or future tense?

One approach is to use present tense for all steps, like this:

Scenario: Simple Google search
    Given the Google home page is displayed
    When the user searches for "panda"
    Then the results page shows links related to "panda"

Notice the tense of each verb:

  1. the home page is – present
  2. the user searches – present
  3. the results page shows – present

Present tense is the simplest verb tense to use. It is the least “wordy” tense, and it makes the scenario feel active.

An alternative approach is to use past-present-future tense for Given-When-Then steps respectively, like this:

Scenario: Simple Google search
    Given the Google home page was displayed
    When the user searches for "panda"
    Then the results page will show links related to "panda"

Notice the different verb tenses in this scenario:

  1. the home page was – past
  2. the user searches – present
  3. the result page will show – future

Scenarios exercise behavior. Writing When steps using present tense centers the scenario’s main actions in the present. Since Given steps must happen before the main actions, they would be written using past tense. Likewise, since Then steps represent expected outcomes after the main actions, they would be written using future tense.

Both of these approaches – using all present tense or using past-present-future in order – are good. Personally, I prefer to write all steps using present tense. It’s easier to explain to others, and it frames the full scenario in the moment. However, I don’t think other approaches are good. For example, writing all steps using past tense or future tense would seem weird, and writing steps in order of future-present-past tense would be illogical. Scenarios should be centered in the present because they should timelessly represent the behaviors they cover.

Want to learn more? Check out my other BDD articles, especially Writing Good Gherkin.

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