TN 3 (08-09)

NL 00610.040 Notice Grammar and Plain Language Guidelines

Use the following guidelines to write agency notices.

A. Address the individual reader

Write your notice as if you are speaking to one person even if it is a notice that will be sent to many people. Writing for the individual reader is clearer and has greater impact.

1. Use a second person pronoun (“you” and “your”)

When you are addressing one person, use “you” or “your” to address the reader directly instead of “he or she,” or “his or hers.”

See the example below.

Use

Instead of

You must provide your account number and mailing address.

The applicant must provide his or her account number and mailing address.

2. Use singular nouns and verbs

Using singular nouns and verbs helps avoid confusion about whether a situation applies to an individual reader or to a larger group.

See the example below.

Use

Instead of

You must apply at your local Social Security office to be appointed as a representative payee.

Individuals and organizations who want to be appointed as representative payees must file applications at their local Social Security offices.

B. Use the simplest form of a verb

Use the simplest form of a verb whenever possible. The simplest and strongest form of a verb is the present tense. A notice written in the present tense is more immediate, less complicated, and more clearly understood.

See the example below.

Use

Instead of

Please send proof of your age.

Proof of age should be sent.

NOTE: Other tenses may be used in your notice. For example, “Any additional premiums will be deducted from your check.”

C. Use a direct verb form and avoid hidden verbs (nominalizations)

Use the most direct form of a verb (base verb) in your notice. Using a base verb makes the notice language more direct and specific. Do not use “hidden verbs.” A hidden verb (nominalization):

  • is a verb converted into a noun;

  • has an ending such as: -al, -ment, -tion, -sion, -ence, -ity, -ure, and -ance, that is added to the verb base;

  • usually needs an extra verb added to the sentence to make sense;

  • is linked to words such as achieve, effect, give, have, make, reach, and take; and

  • is often found between the words “the” and “of”

See the examples below.

Use a direct verb form

Instead of

You must apply for benefits before we can determine if you are entitled.

You must give us an application for benefits before we can make the determination of your entitlement.

We determined that you are not eligible for payments.

We reached a determination that you do not have eligibility for payments.

The letter explains your right to appeal.

The letter will give you an explanation of your right to appeal.

D. Correctly place modifiers

Modifiers are words or phrases that describe some other word or action in a sentence. Be sure to use modifiers correctly. Poorly placed modifiers cause ambiguity and confuse the reader. To reduce confusion:

  • Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs.

  • Place conditional words such as “only” or “always” next to the words they modify.

See the examples below.

What we want to say

Use

Instead of

A letter was sent on July 1, 2007.

We sent a letter on July 1, 2007, explaining why we reduced your benefits. (The date correctly refers to the letter instead of the benefits.)

We sent a letter explaining that we reduced your benefits on July 1, 2007. (In this sentence, the date refers to the reduction of benefits, not the letter.)

If you change your address, report it to us. We don’t need to know about any other change.

Contact us only to report a change in your address.

Report a change in your address only to us. (What about the Post Office, bank, etc.?)

E. Use proper punctuation

Ensure that your notice contains proper punctuation. Use and place punctuation to clarify your text. Punctuation should aid reading and prevent misreading.

1. Comma

Use a comma:

  • After the year, if you have a complete date in the middle of a sentence
    EXAMPLE: “The June 13, 2008, decision of the court…”

  • To separate three or more words or groups of words and after the next-to-last item
    EXAMPLE: "lions, tigers, and bears”
    NOTE: Consider using a bulleted list instead of a long series of phrases separated by commas.

2. Apostrophe

Use an apostrophe:

  • As a substitute for a missing letter or letters in a word
    EXAMPLE: in the contraction cannot = can't

  • To show the possessive case
    NOTE: Form the possessive case of a singular noun by adding an apostrophe and an “s.” For plural nouns ending with an “s,” add only an apostrophe.
    EXAMPLE: the claimant’s benefit, the citizens’ rights
    EXCEPTION: Possessive pronouns (its, ours, theirs, yours, hers, whose) do not use an apostrophe (for example, “If you are outside the United States or its territories…”).

3. Exclamation points

Do not use exclamation points in notices to the public.

4. Other punctuation

Other punctuation rules to consider include:

  • Use a hyphen between parts of a compound word for clarity.

  • Use parentheses to enclose words or figures that clarify.

  • Use a period to indicate the end of a sentence.

  • Use a question mark at the end of a direct question.

  • Use quotation marks at the beginning and end of a phrase to show that it is written exactly as it was originally said or written.

Additional punctuation rules and exceptions are found in the Government Printing Office (GPO) Style Manual at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008/content-detail.html


To Link to this section - Use this URL:
http://policy.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0900610040
NL 00610.040 - Notice Grammar and Plain Language Guidelines - 06/23/2015
Batch run: 06/23/2015
Rev:06/23/2015