Basic (09-15)

NL 10606.105 What are the Standards for Notice Style?

When you write new notice or revise existing notice language, use these style guidelines:

A. Address the individual reader (Personalize the notice)

  • Address the individual reader. Make the notice as personal as possible. Write as if you are talking to a person standing next to you. Aim to personalize the notice for one person, even if it is a notice we send to many people.

  • Use active voice unless there is a specific reason to use passive voice.

  • Use personal pronouns, especially second person pronouns, (e.g., you, your) to personalize the notice.

  • Refer to SSA as we, us, and our.
    For example, “Please return your completed form to us by (date).”

B. Use proper tone

  • Use proper tone. Use a courteous, personal, positive, and non-threatening tone.

  • Use “please” and “thank you” often and whenever appropriate. For example, “If you call or visit an office, please have this letter with you.”

  • Use positive wording. Point out what the agency can do instead of what we cannot do.

C. Write clearly and simply

  • Write notices in clear and simple language. Use plain language guidelines.

  • Avoid excess words.

  • Avoid excess information. The information in the notice should be pertinent. Do not include unnecessary information. Research shows that people are only able to absorb a limited amount of material from a notice and often will read only the beginning of lengthy material.  

  • Use consistent words throughout the entire notice. Use the same words for the same purpose.

  • Avoid or explain technical terms. Replace technical terms with short common words whenever possible. When technical terms are required, provide a definition or explanation.

  • Explain legal points in clear simple language. Do not use legal citations or exact wording from the laws or regulations unless the notice is going only to an attorney or mandated by a court ruling.

  • Spell out or identify abbreviations and acronyms the first time they are used.

  • Avoid jargon, idioms, slang and outdated words. A term such as “support and maintenance,” is agency jargon. The public does not readily understand our jargon.  Replace jargon with short common words that give a definition or explain the concept whenever possible.

  • Use contractions when appropriate. A contraction is appropriate when it would make the notice easier to understand. Use contractions when they sound natural.

  • Choose the correct word. Be aware of frequently misused words. Do not rely solely on spell checking software.

  • Do not use “and/or.”

  • Do not use "this" without a subject. Write, "How this policy will be implemented," rather than "How this will be implemented."

D. Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation

Make sure the spelling, grammar, and punctuation used in the notice is correct. Do not rely solely on spell checking software.

1. Verb Rules

  • Use the simplest form of a verb. Use present tense, and use singular nouns and verbs whenever possible.

  • Use the most direct form of a verb. Avoid nominalizations (hidden verbs).

  • Correctly place modifiers. Keep subjects and objects close to their verbs. Place conditional words such as “only” or “always” next to the word they modify. 

2. Miscellaneous grammar rules

Use “who” rather than “that” when referring to a group.

For example, write, "Please advise nonattorney representatives who may be eligible for direct payment to register with us now."

3. Punctuation rules

  • Do not capitalize the letter “a” in the word agency, even when using it to refer specifically to SSA.

  • Use a comma after the year if you have a complete date in the middle of a sentence. For example, “The June 13, 2010, decision of the court….”

  • Use a comma to separate three or more words or groups of words and after the next to last item. For example, “Please call, write, or visit the office where you filed your claim.”

    NOTE: Consider using a bulleted list instead of a long series of items separated by commas. A bulleted list, used in place of a long series of items, enhances readability.

  • Do not use exclamation points in notices to the public.

Follow the punctuation rules in U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.

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NL 10606.105 - What are the Standards for Notice Style? - 09/28/2015
Batch run: 08/14/2017