Mary Dash’s Writing Tips
Mary Dash, Chief of the Congressional Correspondence and Quality Review Branch of the Internal Revenue Service, wrote these excellent writing tips.
Active and passive voice
Readers prefer active voice sentences, and we should try to use the active voice in most of our business writing to communicate our message most effectively. Active voice clearly identifies the action and who is performing that action. Unfortunately, much of government writing is in the passive voice, giving documents a wordy, bureaucratic tone. Over time, writing in the passive voice simply becomes a habit, one we should all work to change.
What is active/passive voice?
To know whether you are writing in the active or passive voice, identify the subject of the sentence and decide whether the subject is doing the action or being acted upon.
|The tax return (subject) was completed (action) before the April 15 deadline by Mr. Doe.||Mr. Doe (subject) completed (action) the tax return (object) before the April 15 deadline.|
|Additional information (subject) can be obtained (action) by employees from our website.||Employees (subject) can obtain (action) additional information (object) from our website.|
When we write in the passive voice, we add some form of the helping verb “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, being, or been) to an otherwise strong verb that really did not need help.
Why should we use active voice?
Active voice makes documents stronger by showing responsibility or giving credit for an action. When we avoid showing responsibility, we often don’t give enough information to explain the problem and how to fix it. Often, we use a form of the passive called the “cut passive” and never identify the doer of the action. This form sounds vague and abstract.
|New requirements (subject) were introduced (action) to strengthen the banking system.||The Banks Act of 1985 (subject) introduced (action) new requirements (object) to strengthen the banking system.|
By eliminating the helping verb, the active voice sentence generally uses fewer words to communicate the same information.
|Mr. Doe (subject) was told (action) by the bank official that he would need to provide additional information. (16 words)||The bank official (subject) told (action) Mr. Doe (object) he would need to provide additional information. (13 words)|
Active voice more closely resembles spoken language; hopefully ideal spoken language. When we speak, we generally use the active voice without thinking. Our writing should become that automatic.
You would never say:
Passive: My car (subject) was driven (action) to work by me.
Passive: Breakfast (subject) was eaten (action) by me this morning.
Instead, you would say:
Active: I (subject) drove (action) my car (object) to work.
Active: I (subject) ate (action) breakfast (object) this morning.
Is using the passive voice appropriate in some situations?
Using the cut passive form is appropriate in two situations:
- When we do not know who performed the action
- When the doer of the action is unimportant
However, one caution: If adding the name of the person or organization performing the action would make the document stronger and help our readers, we should try to identify the doer of the action.
How can I start writing in the active voice?
Here are a few tips:
Turn the clause or sentence around, putting the subject first:
|This proposed rule was published by General Counsel in the Federal Register.||General Counsel published this proposed rule in the Federal Register.|
Change the verb to eliminate the helping verb “to be”:
|We must consider how our resources will be used to deliver quality services.||We must consider how to use our resources to deliver quality services.|
Rethink the sentence:
|Although Mr. Doe was found to be eligible for this position; all of the positions in Boston had already been filled by our personnel office prior to receiving his application.||Though we found Mr. Doe eligible for the position, our personnel office had filled all positions in Boston before we received his application.|
Writing in the active voice isn’t difficult if you follow who-does-what sequence. Your readers can visualize the action and follow the action to the conclusion.
Compound words generally develop over time through use. As people continue to use two or more previously unrelated words together, the combination gains acceptance. After a while, words that began as two separate words may become hyphenated or joined into one word. For example, earlier rules told us to keep compound words beginning with “web” as two words, like website, web page, and web server.
However, more and more, we are seeing website spelled as one word. Sometimes, we can spell a word as one word or two words depending on how we use it in the sentence, such as “anyone” and “any one,” or “everyone” and “every one.” Usually, they are spelled as one word unless they are followed by “of” and mean “a particular one among a number of things.”
Unfortunately, this progression doesn’t follow a consistent, regular pattern. The word experts can’t even agree on rules for compound words. To compound the problem, I couldn’t even get the editor in my word processor to agree with me after I looked up words in the dictionary. The only way to be sure of the current spelling is to check a very recent dictionary and hope for the best. To illustrate, recognizing the risk of confusing you further, I’ll offer a few rules that I found in The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition:
Compound nouns ending in “up” are one word or hyphenated.
But caution: If you use the same word as a verb phrase, each word stands alone. Example:
I will follow up on your suggestion next week. Then, I will give you a detailed follow-up on my results.
Most compound nouns ending in “down” are one word.
But caution: If you try to give someone a “put-down,” you need a hyphen.
Compound nouns ending in “in” usually take a hyphen, but compound nouns ending in “out” are usually one word.
Of course, I have another caution: You must give your children a “time-out,” and when you eat dinner, it may become a “pig-out.”
Compound nouns ending in “on” usually get a hyphen, while compound nouns ending in “off” are either one word or hyphenated.
But, you have to “login” and “logoff” from your computer.
Compound nouns with a prepositional phrase get hyphens.
That gives us an “attorney-at-law,” a “brother-in-law,” and a “right-of -way.” But we still have a “power of attorney,” a “line of credit,” a “rule of thumb,” and a “standard of living.”
I suggest you get a good dictionary and keep it close at hand!
“Tone” in a document is the impression we leave with our readers about our professionalism, our attitudes toward the subject, and even our attitudes toward the reader. Your choice of personal pronouns is probably the single most important factor in giving your document a friendly, personal, human tone.
Address the reader by name or as “you”
Use “you” or “your” as often as possible to convey a conversational tone in your documents. This conversational tone can make your documents sound more like the tone you would probably take if you actually talked with the reader. This technique will make your documents sound more natural, open, and much less bureaucratic.
Refer to yourself or the person signing the letter as “I” instead of “we”
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “we” as a pronoun “used by the speaker or writer to indicate the speaker or writer along with another or others as the subject.” It also defines the term as a pronoun “used instead of I by a sovereign in formal address to refer to himself or herself.” When we use “we” to refer to ourselves when speaking as one individual, we give people an opportunity to ridicule us as the following story shows:
A lawyer wrote to his congressional representative after receiving a letter from a government employee. He was irate that the letter did not answer his question. As if the non-responsive tone of the letter wasn’t enough, the employee had used “we” throughout the letter, even when the action could only be attributed to the writer. The lawyer remarked that he had trouble deciding whether the employee was “a member of royalty or whether he had a mouse in his pocket.”
Using “I” instead of “we” when the document is clear that only one person carried out the action makes you seem more real to your reader. You will communicate accountability, a professional friendliness, and a personal interest in the document you are signing. Use “we” when you are referring to actions you and at least one other person carried out and “I” when referring to yourself as the subject of the action.
Writers sometimes fill their sentences with words that are unfamiliar, unnecessary, or too large for the occasion-also known as gobbledygook. Our readers are busy people who don’t have time for wordy, hard-to-read documents. Good writing should never include gobbledygook.
|During the telephone conversation, Mr. Doe identified himself and requested the realtor provide him information concerning the assets for sale.||During the call, Mr. Doe identified himself and asked the realtor to give him information on the assets for sale.|
|I am responding to your correspondence of November 29, 2002.||I am responding to your letter of November 29, 2002.|
Avoid gobbledygook by doing the following: Using specific, concrete words. We want our writing to be as clear as possible. Below are a few commonly used words we should replace with more concrete words.
Using strong verbs
The more we use verbs in place of noun phrases, the clearer and less wordy our writing becomes.
|Make an assessment||Assess|
|Have a meeting with||Meet with|
|Make a decision||Decide|
|Come to an agreement||Agree|
|Make an announcement||Announce|
Weak: The General Accounting Office made a recommendation that we take the program under review.
Stronger: The General Accounting Office recommended that we review the program.
Weak: Ms. Doe made a suggestion that we require her employer to provide for catch-up contributions in its 401(k) plan.
Stronger: Ms. Doe suggested that we require her employer to provide for catch-up contributions in its 401(k) plan.
Avoiding false subjects
False subjects are words like it is, it was, there is, there are, and there was. They usually occur at the beginning of a sentence and often displace the real subject.
|It is possible that the taxpayer may not qualify for the earned income tax credit.||The taxpayer may not qualify for the earned income tax credit.|
|There is a door leading out to the public reception area directly behind the place the interviewee sits.||A door leads out to the public reception area directly behind the place the interviewee sits.|
Eliminating or shortening wordy phrases
Wordy phrases use too many words to express an idea.
|At this time||Now|
|At which time||Then|
|Based on the fact that||Due to/because|
|If at all possible||If possible|
|In a number of cases||Many/some|
|It is obvious that||Obviously|
Make your sentences short, direct, and clear.
|As a matter of fact, any change to the law requires legislative action.||In fact, any change to the law requires legislative action.|
|Based on the fact that Mr. Doe is no longer a plan participant, he cannot make catch-up contributions.||Because Mr. Doe is no longer a plan participant, he cannot make catch-up contributions.|
Redundant expressions needlessly repeat ideas when fewer words clearly communicate the meaning. They add no value to your documents. For example, in the expression “final outcome,” the word final is redundant because outcome implies finality.
|We completed the review of your program and will give you our final conclusion within two weeks.||We completed the review of your program and will give you our conclusion within two weeks.|
|A balance of $200.00 still remains on your credit card.||A balance of $200.00 remains on your credit card.|
Here are a few more examples:
|Are now currently||Are|
Eliminating legal or technical terms. Studies have shown that not only non-technical readers, but also professionals in the technical field you are writing about appreciate plain language documents that are free from technical terms. People are busy and documents written in a plain language style help them understand the information more quickly. We don’t need to impress our readers with big words.
Good organization, a logical flow of information, and clear, understandable language are much more like to impress. If we need to cite legal code or court cases, we should put that information in parenthesis at the end of the sentence or paragraph it applies to or in footnotes at the bottom of the page. That way, the information is available if readers need it but does not distract from the information you are trying to communicate.
|Organizations can save shipping costs by sending their brochures via Standard A mail.||Organizations can save shipping costs by sending their brochures by bulk mail.|
|Pursuant to Internal Revenue Code Section 86(a)(1)(A), gross income must include no more than one—half of the social security benefits received during the tax year.||Gross income must include no more than one-half of the social security benefits received during the tax year [Section 86(a)(1)(A)of the Internal Revenue Code].|
Problem words challenge most of us, which/that is hard to accept/except. These words don’t affect/effect all of your work. You may think it’s all right/alright to use the wrong word, but just among us writers, it’s a problem. Even if we appraise/apprise you of the right word choice, as we’re doing here, to ensure/assure/insure you have the right choices, you should check this list bimonthly/twice a month/every two months as a refresher. For example, take “capital” and “capitol”. If you cite/site the “capital” of our nation, or the “capitol” building, what’s the difference? They both comprise/compose part of the English language and seem to refer to the same thing—right?
Do you think it doesn’t make a difference? Nothing could be farther/further from the truth. Choosing the correct word says something about us, our organization, and our professionalism. If you just rely on good word references (e.g.,—or is it i.e.?—this one and others), the principals/principles of good writing begin to fall into place. Effective business writing which/that includes helping you select the right words, helps all of us communicate more effectively, and more efficiently. Besides, we want our readers to focus on the purpose and message of our document, not play guessing games with poor word choices. Some of the most frequently misused words are:
Accept: Use accept as a verb meaning, “to receive.”
I accept this award on behalf of all the members of the team.
Except: Use except as a preposition meaning “to the exclusion of.”
Except for your third recommendation, I agree with your report on our progress.
Affect: The most common use of affect is as a verb meaning, “to influence, change, assume.” As a noun affect is a rarely-used, psychology term for feeling or emotion.
The new law affected (changed) the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Effect: The most common use of effect is as a noun meaning “a result or outcome.” As a verb, effect means, “to cause or bring about.” We use “effect” as a verb very infrequently; most often in scientific contexts.
The new law will have an effect (result) on the number of people who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
All right: Use this form. Spell this expression as two words.
His choice of words was all right.
Alright: Do not use this form. This form is a nonstandard spelling, generally considered incorrect.
Among: Use among when referring to more than two people or things.
I divided the work among the 5 staff members.
Between: Use between when referring to two persons or things, or more than two persons or things when considering them in pairs or in two groups.
He divided the work equally between you and me.
He divided the work equally between the two offices.
Appraise: Appraise is a verb meaning, “to give the value or worth of something.”
Our auditor will appraise Mr. Smith’s business assets.
Apprise: Apprise is a verb meaning, “to tell or notify.”
Our auditor will apprise Mr. Smith of his findings.
As: Use as, as if, as though, or other similar expressions as a conjunction in written documents.
It looks as if the proposed law will become effective later this month.
Like: Do not use like as a conjunction when writing; use it as a preposition.
You should format your letter like the one shown in the guidebook.
Assure: To assure means “to give someone confidence.” Use assure when giving your word to people.
I assure you we are thoroughly reviewing this matter.
Insure: To insure means “to protect against loss.”
You should insure that desk for $1,000.
Ensure: To ensure means “to make certain.”
We will ensure that the process continues uninterrupted during the transition.
Bimonthly: Bimonthly means both twice a month and every two months. To avoid confusing your readers, just say “twice a month” or “every two months.” In general, we should avoid using the “bi” words, like biweekly, biannually, or biennially, to reduce the chance of a misunderstanding.
We must make payments twice a month.
Both: Both means “the two considered together.”
We will complete both projects by the end of the year.
Each: Each refers to the individual members of a group considered separately.
Each employee should prepare an individual development plan.
Capital: The capital is “the central city or a site of government,” “invested money,” or an “uppercase letter.”
Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States.
Capitol: Capitol has only one meaning: “the main government building.”
The senator has an office in the capitol on E Street.
Cite: To cite means “to quote.”
You cited a section of the Internal Revenue Code that refers to the Estimated Tax Penalty.
Sight: Use sight when you mean “vision.”
The guard has sight of the entire parking area.
Site: Use site when referring to “a location.”
We have several customer service sites in your area.
Comprise: Comprise means to “include or contain.”
The new Department of Homeland Security will comprise enforcement organizations from across the government.
Compose: Compose means to “to make up from many parts.”
Enforcement organizations across the government will compose the Department of Homeland Security.
Continual: Continual means “intermittent, but frequently repeated.”
As part of the continual effort to simplify the employment tax deposit system and reduce the burden for employers, the Department of the Treasury changed its regulations for payroll tax deposits several times over the last decade.
Continuous: Continuous means “without interruption.”
The 24-hour help desk received a continuous flow of requests for information after the press conference.
e.g.: Short for exempli gratia (translated means “free examples”), we use e.g. to mean “for example.”
FMS will take a number of steps to put into practice a process for preparing consolidated financial statements, e.g., accelerate the central reporting cycle, implement the new financial reports compilation process, and establish business rules.
In this sentence, “for example” works equally well.
i.e.: Short for id est, i.e. means “that is.”
We will remove the barriers to successful implementation, i.e., give employees the training and tools needed to accomplish the task.
In today’s business writing, we are better off using the English versions: “for example” and “that is.”
Farther: Farther refers to “distance.”
The drive from the airport to the processing site was farther than we expected.
Further: Further refers to “a greater extent or degree.”
We need additional time to further review the issues you raised in your letter.
May and might: Use may or might when implying permission or possibility.
While the taxpayer may not qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, he may be eligible for the Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled because he is over age 65 and has nominal income.
Can and could: Use can or could when implying ability or power.
You can reach me during the day at this telephone number.
Principle: Use principle as a noun meaning “belief, moral standard, or a basic law.”
The Internal Revenue Code explains the principles of workmen’s compensation [section 104(a)(1)].
Principal: Use principal as a noun to refer to a business owner or a partner, the head of a school, or to a sum of invested money. Use it as an adjective to mean “the most important” or “main.”
The principal reason for the Safety, Health, and Environmental training is to promote a safe and healthy work place for employees.
Than: Use than when comparing people or things.
We found our security system has a higher level of security than the federal guidelines require.
Then: Use then as an adverb meaning “at that time” or “next.”
We will complete all the steps in the investigation and then take whatever course of action is necessary.
That: That introduces a “defining” clause containing essential information. Do not enclose the information in commas.
Our goal is to give our customers service that is accurate and prompt.
Which: Which introduces unnecessary, but nice to know, information. Set off this information with commas. If the information is unnecessary and adds nothing to the sentence, leave it out
Employees who do not wish to use the employee entrance can use the main lobby, which will have a guard.
While: Use while to show similarity in time. While can also mean “though,” “although,” “even though,” “but” or “and,” however, you should use the more concrete equivalent word.
We found derogatory information while processing Mr. Doe’s application for the Special Agent position.
Although we found derogatory information, we continued to process Mr. Doe’s application for the Special Agent position.
Who: Use who when” he, she, they, I, or we” works in the sentence.
Who is studying the effect the new law will have on Treasury employees?
Whom: Use whom when “him, her, them, me, or us” works in the sentence.
Whom did you say you talked to in the Secretary’s Office?
Prepositions at the end of sentences
We go through such gyrations in our written words to avoid putting a preposition at the end of the sentence. And yet, in speaking, we are perfectly content to end a sentence with a preposition. Some examples:
I don’t know what you are talking about.
What did you do that for?
Where did that come from?
I am sure something better will turn up.
Whether or not to end a sentence with a preposition is a literary battle that people have waged for decades. Winston Churchill purportedly replied when criticized for putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, “That is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” As awkward as Churchill’s sentence sounds, we still go through incredible efforts to avoid putting a preposition at the end of the sentence and often end up with formal, bureaucratic, stuffy, hard-to-read sentences.
The best approach is to make your sentence as simple, straightforward, and clear as possible. Let the words flow smoothly to your reader, and, if a preposition falls naturally at the end, that’s OK. Trust your ear to find the right sentence structure.
|I am interested in the topic about which you wrote.||I am interested in the topic you wrote about.|
|Listen for the sound and pay attention to the effect you want to achieve when deciding whether or not to use a preposition to end a sentence with.||Listen for the sound and pay attention to the effect you want to achieve when deciding whether or not to end a sentence with a preposition.|
Bottom line: Use the form that sounds human and is easy to read. A preposition is a perfectly good word to end a sentence with.
Federal or federal?
This question comes up rather frequently. For some reason, many people think the word federal always warrants a capital F. Actually, you should capitalize federal only when it is part of a proper noun, that is, the official name of a particular or unique person, place, or thing. So you would only capitalize federal when you use it in the name of a federal agency, an act, or some other proper noun.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Federal Insurance Contributions Act
- Federal Trade Commission
- Federal Water Pollution Control Act
- Federal Reserve Board
When writing about the Federal Government in its official capacity using the term as an official title, you should capitalize both Federal and Government. Most of the time, we use “federal” simply as a form of general classification, which would not require us to capitalize it.
Once a year, federal employees have an opportunity to choose a different health care provider. Many issues we address each day are subject to federal, state, and local laws. So, the next time you are writing about federal programs or issues, think twice about capitalization. More often than not, the correct answer to this question is “federal” not “Federal.”