Place Words Carefully
Avoid ambiguous phrasing that can mislead your reader.
How you place words in relation to each other can greatly affect your document. Using
short sentences will often make this problem disappear.
In the example below, it is difficult for the reader of the old style provision to figure out
which words relate to the forest products, which relate to the tribe, and which relate to
|Upon the request of an Indian tribe, the
Secretary may provide that the purchaser of the forest products of such tribe, which are
harvested under a timber sale contract, permit, or other harvest sale document, make
advance deposits, or direct payments of the gross proceeds of such forest products, less
any amounts segregated as forest management deductions pursuant to section 163.25, into accounts designated by such
|| If you ask us, we will require purchasers of
your forest products to deposit their payment into an account that you designate.
(a) You can instruct us to deposit advance payments as well as direct
payments into the account.
(b) We will withhold from the deposit any forest management deductions under section 163.25.
You will eliminate many potential sources of ambiguity by writing shorter sentences.
The less complex the sentence, the clearer the meaning and the smaller the chance of
ambiguity creeping in. Still, you must watch how you place words even in short
sentences. In the example below, the reader may have to read the original statement several times to figure out that we don't mean
"If you really want to have a disability . . ."
|If you are determined to have a disability, we will pay you the following:||If we determine that you have a disability, we
will pay you the following:
As you write, place your words with care to avoid possible misinterpretations or
muddied meanings. A carefully written document is clear, concise, and unambiguous.
Draft your document with care to eliminate unclear phrasing.
"Use Lots of Informative Headings In Your Letters"
Use If-then tables are an ideal way to make complex provisions
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a table is worth at least 750. By laying out the
material visually, tables help your reader see relationships in a way that dense text
never can. No reader would dispute that the rewritten regulation below is far clearer
that the dense text it replaces.
|§ 163.25 Forest management deductions.
(a) Pursuant to the provisions of 25 USC 413 and 25 USC 3105, a forest management
deduction shall be withheld from the gross proceeds of sales of Indian forest land as described in
(b) Gross proceeds shall mean the value in money or money's worth of consideration
furnished by the purchaser of forest products purchased under a contract, permit, or other
document for the sale of forest products.
(c) Forest management deductions shall not be withheld where the total consideration
furnished under a document for the sale of forest products is less than $5,001.
(d) Except as provided in § 163.25 (e) of this part, the amount of the forest deduction
shall not exceed the lesser amount of ten percent (10%) of the gross proceeds or, the actual
percentage in effect on November 28, 1990.
(e) The Secretary may increase the forest management deduction percentage for Indian
forest land upon receipt of a written request from a tribe supported by a written resolution
executed by the authorized tribal representatives. At the request of the authorized tribal
representatives and at the discretion of the Secretary the forest management deduction
percentage may be decreased to not less than one percent (1%) or the requirement for collection
may be waived.
|§ 163.25 What forest management deductions will BIA withhold?
We will withhold a forest management deduction if the contract for the sale of forest
products has a value of over $5,000. The deduction will be a percentage of the gross proceeds
(i.e., the price we get from the buyer). We will determine the amount of the deduction in
accordance with the following table.
|If . . .
||then the percentage of the deduction is . . .
|a tribe requests an increase in the deduction through a tribal resolution and written request to us||the percentage
requested by the tribe.
||an authorized tribal representative requests and we approve a decrease in the deduction||the percentage
requested, with a one percent minimum.
||an authorized tribal representative requests and we approve a waiver of the deduction||waived.
||none of the above conditions apply
||the percentage in effect on November 28, 1990, or 10 percent, whichever is less.|
You can also use variations on the if-then table to clarify other types of complicated
provisions. Which of the following would you rather read?
|§ 163.17 Deposit with bid.
(a) A deposit shall be made with each proposal for the purchase of Indian forest
products. Such deposits shall be at least:
(1) Ten (10) percent if the appraised stumpage value is less than $100,000 and in nay
event not less than $1,000 or full value whichever is less;
(2) Five (5) percent if the appraised stumpage value is $100,000 to $250,000 but in any
event not less than $10,000; and
(c) Three (3) percent if the appraised stumpage value exceeds $250,000 but in any
event not less than $12,500.
§ 163.17 What deposit must I make with my bid?
You must include with your proposal to buy Indian forest products a deposit that meets
the conditions in the following table.
|If the appraised stumpage value is . . .
||you must deposit . . .
||and the minimum amount of the deposit is . . .
|less than $100,000
||ten percent of the stumpage value
||between $100,000 and $250,000
||five percent of the stumpage value
||three percent of the stumpage value
If-then tables are a powerful tool for simplifying complicated material. By laying out complex provisions visually,
you help the reader to see relationships in a way that dense text never could. Tables almost always use many fewer words that a straight textual explanation would use.
Put complex provisions into tables to save words and make relationships clearer.
Avoid Words and Constructions That Cause Confusion
Your document will be clearer if you avoid confusing phrasing.
Define each abbreviation or acronym the first time you use it.
In general, use abbreviations only to refer to terms that are central to the document. For example, if a regulation is about the Comprehensive
Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, you can refer to it as CERCLA. But do not abbreviate terms that you use only one or a few times.
Write them out each time.
Use the same term consistently to identify a specific thought or object.
For example, if you use the term "senior citizens" to refer to a group, continue to use this term throughout your document. Do not substitute another term, such
as "the elderly," that will cause the reader to wonder if you are referring to the same group.
Define words in a way that does not conflict with ordinary or accepted usage.
If possible, use a word in a way that is consistent with its everyday meaning
rather than creating a new meaning for your document. A change in meaning may confuse the reader, and you create ambiguity if you use the word elsewhere in your document in its ordinary sense.
For example, don't redefine "automobile" to refer to vehicles such as motorcycles or large trucks.
Avoid "noun sandwiches."
Too much government writing uses too many noun clusters--groups of nouns "sandwiched" together. Avoid these confusing constructions by using more
prepositions and articles to clarify the relationships among the words.
|Underground mine worker safety protection procedures development
||Developing procedures to protect the safety of workers in underground mines|
Use pronouns that clearly refer to a specific noun.
If a pronoun could refer to more than one person or object in a sentence, repeat the name of the person or object or rewrite the sentence.
|After the Administrator appoints an Assistant Administrator, he
or she must . . .
||After the Administrator appoints an Assistant Administrator, the Assistant Administrator must . . .
Avoid confusing legal and technical jargon.
Readers can do without archaic jargon such as "hereafter," "heretofore," and "therewith." See Appendix A, "Words and Expressions to Avoid," and Appendix B
for plain substitutions for commonly used jargon and unclear phrases from the 1990 Federal Register publication, "Drafting Legal Documents."
You may sometimes need to use a technical term to communicate accurately
and convey a precise meaning. But, be careful not to be cowed into overusing
technical terms. The argument that technical terms are "necessary" is greatly
overused. Try to substitute everyday language for jargon as often as possible.
Use technical terms only when truly necessary and only when your document will be read only by technical readers. If your document is intended for both
technical and non-technical readers, write for the non-technical reader.
Avoid stilted, wordy language.
Wordy, dense construction is one of the biggest problems in government writing.
Nothing is more confusing to the reader than long, complex sentences
containing multiple phrases and clauses.
|If the State agency finds that an individual has
received a payment to which the individual was not entitled, whether or not the payment
was due to the individual's fault or misrepresentation, the individual shall be liable
to repay to the State the total sum of the payment to which the individual was not
||If the State agency finds that you received a payment that you weren't entitled to, you must pay the entire sum back.|
"Use Lots of Informative Headings In Your Letters"
Headings help readers find their way through a document and locate information they care about.
A document with lots of informative headings is easy to follow. Using more headings helps you break up the document into logical, understandable pieces.
Informative headings are more specific and thus more helpful to the reader than are short headings that cover several pieces of information. Questions make
|Purpose and policy.
|What does this subpart do?
|Information and records available to the public and exempt from disclosure.||How can I get records from SBA?
How long will it take for SBA to respond to my request for records?
|Public access to information and records.
||If SBA grants my request, which records will be supplied?
||How will SBA respond to business requests for information?
It's often useful to start writing your document by developing the headings,
structuring them to your readers' concerns. This approach can also reveal major
groupings of information that you might want to identify with centered headings.
Qualifications of permittees and lessees
Who may hold leases and permits?
Can foreign citizens hold permits or leases?
How do I file evidence of my qualifications?
Can I amend my qualifications statement?
Must I file a bond with my permit or lease?
Where do I file my bond?
What types of bonds are acceptable?
How does BLM establish bond amounts?
When does BLM terminate my liability under a bond?
On the other hand, headings should not be so long that they overwhelm the
material in the section itself. Avoid headings with one word answers.
|Do I have to file a newspaper notice of my activities
before I begin operations?
|Are there any public notice requirements?
You must publish a notice of your operations in a local newspaper before
Develop your headings carefully. They are one of the
most useful tools you can use to develop an appealing, understandable document.