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Executive Secretariat

Writing Basics

The following topics cover some of the grammar, punctuation, and other common errors we find when editing letters prepared for the NIH Director’s or NIH Deputy Director’s signature. For more information on style guidelines, check the GPO Style Manual External Web Site Policy.

Verb Forms

Word Choices




Other tips


Use the active voice.

The active voice eliminates confusion by naming the "actor" in the sentence. However, the passive voice is appropriate when the actor is unknown, unimportant, or obvious—e.g., small items are often stolen.

Correct Incorrect
We have changed our decision. The decision has been changed.
We reviewed your application. The application was reviewed.

Use action verbs.

Action verbs are short and direct.

Correct Incorrect
consider give consideration to
applies to is applicable to
make payment pay
concerns is concerned with

Use the present tense.

Present tense makes your material more direct and forceful.

Use... Instead of...
You must notify us if there is a change in the principal investigator or other key staff. If you change the principal investigator or key staff at a later date, it will be necessary for you to notify NIH.
You must send us proof of payment so that we can process your claim. If NIH is to determine your financial liability, it will be necessary that proof of payment is submitted.


Use "the" before "NIH"

If you would say "the National Institutes of Health..." in a sentence, then you should say "the NIH..." Example: "Total employment at the NIH in 2012 was..." However, you would not say "the NIH" when "NIH" is used as an adjective to modify a noun. Example: "Total expenditures for NIH grants in FY 2012 were..." The same principle applies when using the acronym for an institute, i.e., "the NCI is..." or "the NIAID is..."


Use common, everyday words.

Documents should be written clearly and simply. Government writing should be dignified, but not pompous.

Use... Instead of...
so accordingly
allow afford an opportunity
later at a later date
near close proximity
if in the event that
must incumbent upon
use utilize

Use “you” and other personal pronouns to engage the reader.

Use... Instead of...
we the Agency or NIH
you employees, grant applicants, patients

Use “must” instead of “shall”

The use of shall creates confusion. To impose a legal obligation, use must. To predict a future action, use will.

Correct Incorrect
You must sign the application. The application shall be signed.
We will notify you. You shall be notified.


Use “not only” in conjunction with “but also” or “as well.”

Always use not only in conjunction with either but also or as well:

  • Jim bought not only a computer but also a new desk.
  • Sheila sent her complaint letter not only to the company but to the newspaper as well.

Avoid using undefined technical terms (i.e., jargon and acronyms).

Correct Incorrect
We owe you additional money... An underpayment exists...
The NIH Office of Extramural Programs Guide to Grants and Contracts... The NIH OER Guide...

Use positive rather than negative words, when possible.

Words can attract or repel readers, and a negative statement can be unclear. However, the negative is appropriate if you’re cautioning the reader—for example, "Don't smoke."

Use... Instead of...
Please send the completed form to us right away so your monthly payments can continue. If your cooperation is not forthcoming, the contract will end and related payments will be terminated.


Avoid using gender-specific terms.

Use... Instead of...
Personnel, workforce Manpower
Chair Chairman
The Director or the Director's designee must complete the form The Director or his or her designee must complete the form.

Avoid long strings of nouns.

Use... Instead of...
Development of procedures to Human research subjects safety
protect human research subjects... protection procedures development...

Frequently misused words

Word Guideline For Example
Affect vs. effect Affect is generally a verb; effect is generally a noun. (See a dictionary for exceptions.)

Cigarette smoke affects my breathing.

Cigarette smoke has an effect on my breathing.

Which vs. that

Which introduces a nonrestrictive clause and always follows a comma.

That introduces a restrictive clause and is never preceded by a comma.

Cotton candy, which always makes me sick, is one of my weaknesses. (The clause is nonrestrictive because it refers to all cotton candy.)

Cotton candy that is red always makes me sick.The clause is restrictive because it describes a specific cotton candy.)

Composed of vs. comprises Do not use composed of.

Instead, use compose when the parts come before the whole in a sentence.

Or, use comprise when the whole comes before the parts.

Five working days and two weekend days compose a week.

The lab comprises two researchers and four lab technicians.

Ensure vs. insure vs. assure The verbs ensure, insure, and assure all generally mean “to make sure.” But, there are slight differences in context that makes one of these more appropriate than the others. Use assure for things that are alive (remember that a is for alive), ensure to guarantee events and conditions (remember those two e's at the end of guarantee), and insure to refer to financial contexts (remember the i is for income).
Fewer vs. less Use fewer when referring to a group of distinct elements, less when referring to an aggregate:

Fewer people are dying of strokes.

Please use less vinegar in that dressing.

Fewer sugar cubes in your coffee means less sugar in your diet

If vs. whether If specifies a condition; whether introduces an indirect question concerning alternatives. I do not know whether he can do it.

If he can do it, let him.

Imply vs. infer To imply is to express something indirectly.

To infer is to deduce, surmise, or conclude something, based on indirect evidence.

When the audience claps, I infer that they enjoyed my playing.

She rolled her eyes, implying that she thought it was a bad idea.

Lay vs. lie Lay (past tense and past participle form, laid) is a transitive verb; people lay things on the table or floor. People do not “lay down” to sleep.

Lie (past tense, lay; past participle, lain) is an intransitive verb; things and people lie on the table or on the couch.

Mary laid the sweater on the chair.

The sweater is lying on the chair.

Please lay your books on the table.

John is lying on the couch.

Yesterday, John lay on the couch all afternoon. (The simple past tense of lie is lay.)

Principal vs. principle

Principal can be either a noun or an adjective, meaning either a person in authority or a person or thing of primary importance.

Principle is always a noun, usually referring to a fundamental rule, characteristic, or ingredient.

philosophical principle

principal of a school

principal investigator

Under way vs. underway Underway is a rarely used adjective.

Under way is a commonly used adverbial phrase.

Some aircraft are capable of underway refueling.

Some aircraft are capable of refueling while under way.

The meeting is under way.


Hyphenated words

Guideline For Example
Except after two- or three-letter prefixes, use a hyphen to avoid double vowels or triple consonants.

cooperate (two-letter prefix = co-)

prehistoric (three-letter prefix = pre-)

Naso-orbital, ice-axe, shell-like

Some words are never hyphenated. Cannot, anyone, anywhere, and someone
No one is always two words. No one replied to the job posting.
As a verb, follow up is two words.

As a noun or adjective, use a hyphen.

Please follow up with the customer.

The follow-up meeting was productive.

Hyphenate words that form an adjective/modifier phrase.

He is a member of the hard-of-hearing community.

She purchased a state-of-the-art entertainment system.

Do not hyphenate words that form a predicate phrase. The visitors were hard of hearing.
Her system is state of the art.
Do not hyphenate words made up of two nouns when it is not being used as a modifier. The virus has spread nationwide.
The workday is almost over!
Do not hyphenate an adverb-participle combination if the adverb ends in –ly.

She designed a well-operating system.

Dr. Smith runs a poorly operating laboratory.

Do not hyphenate a foreign phrase or more than one word when it is being used as a modifier. ex officio member
post mortem evaluation
ante bellum era
Do not hyphenate a two-word modifier that has a letter or numeral as the second element. page 2 revisions
World War II related injuries
Do not hyphenate a compound ending in –like unless the first element is a proper (capitalized) name or unless a triple consonant will be formed. lifelike
Do not hyphenate words beginning with non- unless the word following non-is a proper (capitalized) noun or is itself a hyphenated word. nonradioactive



Use an apostrophe and the letter s to form a possessive noun. Do not use 's to form the plural of an abbreviation or number.

We will issue many RFPs this year.

The size 10s and 12s are on the rack.

Some acronyms are inherently plural or may be either singular or plural. MIS may be singular (management information system) or plural (management information systems).

An MIS is being installed in the Office of the Director.

Several MIS are already installed elsewhere on campus.


Guideline For Example
Some style manuals now sanction the omission of the serial comma. However, be consistent in its usage and be sure to use it where it is needed to avoid ambiguity. red, white, and green or
red, white and green.
Use a comma before the conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) when joining two simple sentences (i.e., independent, stand-alone clauses).

He arrived early, but the party had already begun.

I asked Bill about the status of the presentation, and he said he was almost finished.

Do not use a comma before a conjunction if it joins two predicates (i.e., no subject). He arrived early but waited outside.
We built the treehouse and painted it.

Which and other words that introduce nonessential clauses are always preceded (and followed, if appropriate) by a comma.

That introduces a restrictive or essential clause and is never preceded by a comma.

I enjoyed the apples, which are my favorite fruit.

Fred, who is often late for work, was reprimanded again today.

I lost the book that I borrowed from you.

I wish that spring would get here soon.

Place the comma inside quotation marks.

“That is correct,” he said.

Items labeled “1,” “2,” and “3” should be deleted.

Add a comma after a complete date

Add a comma after the city and state when they are used together.

The meeting will be held on November 3, 2013, in Bethesda, MD.

The 2014 meeting will be in Boston, MA, next fall.

Do not use a comma when only the month and year are given.

Do not use a comma when only a city or state is given.

The first meeting will be held in April 2013.

The next meeting will be held in Boston in September 2014.

Jan moved to Maryland in May 2002.

Use a comma before (and after, if applicable) Jr., M.D., Ph.D., etc., but not before II, III, IV, etc.

Sammy Davis, Jr., performed at the event.

John Smith, Ph.D., will give the opening remarks.

Henry XIII was injured in the tournament.

In general, do not use a comma between nouns that modify each other. The musical comedy is sold out.
They lived in a white frame house.



Use an ellipsis, which are three periods (...), to indicate when words have been omitted within a quotation.

In his speech at Gettysburg, Lincoln said, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation ... dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

In general, words omitted in an ellipsis should be from within a single sentence, so that the sense of the original language is not lost.

If you are omitting words from the end of a quoted sentence, include the period, marking the end of the sentence, as a fourth dot in the ellipsis. In this case, do not leave a space before the ellipsis.

Abraham Lincoln's most famous speech begins, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation...."


Use the period consistently in honorifics (Ms., Dr., etc.) and in academic degrees (Ph.D., M.D., etc.).

Align the periods (as well as colons) accompanying numerals in a list.

I. 8. 8:30
II. 9. 10:15
III. 10. 12:15


Quotation marks

Always place quotation marks outside periods and commas.

“We need more volunteers,” the researcher explained.

The television reporter said, “And that’s the news for today.”

Placement of quotation marks with question marks and exclamation points depends on whether the question or emphasis is part of the quotation.

The lecturer asked, "Are there any questions?"

What do you mean, "almost accurate"?

She said, "Hurry up!"

Split infinitives

An infinitive is the base form of a verb with the word "to" in front, e.g., to sleep, to wash, to help.

Avoid splitting an infinitive (e.g., to rapidly run), unless the meaning will be distorted otherwise.

Possessive pronouns preceding a gerund

A gerund is a verb that ends with –ing (running, singing, reading) and that functions as a noun. A pronoun preceding a gerund is most often in the possessive case, for example:

John’s leaving is unfortunate.

He objected to my asking a question.

Pronoun-antecedent agreement

Example Explanation
President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in 1863. It is clear that “his” refers to President Lincoln
Dirt and blood cannot penetrate glass vessels, nor are they affected by heat. It is unclear to which “they” (dirt and blood or the glass vessels) the writer is referring.


Pronoun case

The form of a pronoun depends on its function within a sentence. Used as the subject of a verb, a pronoun must be in the nominative case. As the object of a verb or preposition, or as the subject of an infinitive, a pronoun must be in the objective case.

Example Explanation
The disagreement is between you and me. Me is the object of between.
Bill gave the samples to John and me. Me is the object of to.
Mary is the one whom I saw in the lab. Whom is the object of saw in the clause “I saw [whom].”
Mary is the one who we thought was in the lab. Who is the subject of was in the clause “[who] was in the lab.”
Give it to whoever is the owner. Whoever is the subject of is in the clause “whoever is the owner.”

Use parallel construction.

Arrange sentences so that parallel ideas look parallel. This is especially important when you use a list.

Correct Incorrect

The duties of the Chair are to:

  • approve the minutes
  • write the monthly reports
  • answer all correspondence

The duties of the Chair are:

  • to approve minutes
  • writing of monthly reports
  • the Chair answers letter


Be direct.

Talk directly to your readers. Use imperatives when appropriate. This is especially true for lists of duties, instructions, procedures, and regulations.

Use... Instead of...
Sign all copies of the application. All copies of the application must be signed.

Avoid using exceptions.

Use... Instead of...
Each person under 18 years of age... All persons except those 18 years or older...

Avoid unnecessary words.

Use... Instead of...
Now At the present time....
first (until a “second annual has happened)

first annual....
To In order to...
If In the event that...
By No later than...

Take steps to....
Because As a result of....
To For the purposes of...
Say what you mean! I would like to....
DO NOT USE intensifying modifiers very, really, literally, certainly
Before Prior to...


Avoid redundant phrases.

Phrase Explanation well as Choose one or the other
In addition to...also They mean the same thing
And also Redundant
Close scrutiny By definition, all scrutiny is close
Advance planning All planning is in advance
Major breakthrough All breakthroughs are major
New innovation By definition, innovations are always new
Invited guests Usually, all guests are invited
But nevertheless Use on or the other of these words, not both
On the occasion when Use “On the occasion of” or “when” (when is much more direct)
True fact By definition, facts are true
Eliminate altogether By definition, ‘to eliminate’ gets rid of all of something
Fill to capacity By definition, to fill something means to reach its capacity
Blue in color Context should indicated whether you are referring to mood or color



People read documents to get answers. Organize your message to respond to their interests and concerns. Readers ask several key questions:

  • Why are you sending this to me?
  • How does this affect me?
  • What am I supposed to do?

Use introductions to help your reader understand how the document is organized. For a simple letter or memorandum, an introductory paragraph should suffice. For brochures and lengthy briefing documents or reports, use a table of contents or other list early in the document to guide the reader.

Sentence length should average 15-20 words. Sentences that are simple, active, affirmative, and declarative hold the reader's interest.

Generally, each paragraph should contain only one topic. A series of paragraphs may be used to express complex or highly technical information.

Layout includes margins and white spaces, and heading.

Use adequate margins and provide white space between sections to break up your text. This makes it easier for the reader to understand.

Use headings to guide the reader; the question-and-answer format is especially helpful. Try to anticipate the reader's questions and pose them as the reader would.

Reader's Question Heading
What is cancer? Cancer
Can I get breast cancer? Breast Cancer
What causes cancer? Known Causative Agents
Can cancer be cured? Mortality & Morbidity



  • Generally, use the same font throughout the text of a document.
  • Use shading/boxes sparingly
  • Bullets and numbers:
    • Generally, do not use more than two types of bullets in a document.
    • Use numbers only if there is a sequence to identify or to help guide the reader in a long list of items.

Abbreviations & acronyms

Except as noted below, do not use abbreviations in official correspondence.

You may abbreviate honorifics (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr.), academic degrees (like M.D., Ph.D., or R.N.), or religious orders (S.J., for example) appearing with a person's name, whether in the correspondence or on the envelope.

When addressing envelopes, spell out the names of U.S. states and Canadian provinces in the inside address (except use DC instead of spelling out District of Columbia).

Spell out United States when used as a noun, but abbreviate it (U.S.) as an adjective.



Refer to the GPO Style Manual for questions of capitalization not covered in the points below.

Guideline For Example
Use capitals for FY, but use lowercase when spelling out fiscal year. The FY13 budget was never approved.
The budget for fiscal year 2014 is almost complete.
Use lowercase when referring to parts of a document. chapter 8
table 3
Use uppercase for specific geographical identifications. the West
the Deep South
the Middle East
Metropolitan Washington
Use lowercase for non-specific geographical identifications or when indicating direction.

southern California
the bay area
the east coast (or east coast as a modifier)
Washington metropolitan area

Use uppercase for trade names. Plexiglas, Velcro, Xerox, Kleenex
Use uppercase for a title preceding or following a name. President Washington
George Washington, President of the United States
Use uppercase when a title refers to a specific individual(s). The Director, NIH
The IC Directors
The Chairman
Use lowercase for generic titles. The function of the chairman is to call meetings to order.
Use lowercase for seasons of the year. spring, summer, fall (or autumn), winter
Use uppercase for racial or ethnic groups.

We hope to determine why more Blacks than Whites are affected by the disease.

We have a strong program to recruit Asian and Hispanic volunteers.



Contractions are fine for informal use but should normally be avoided in official correspondence. If in doubt about whether to use a contraction, you probably shouldn’t should not use it.


Guideline Correct Incorrect
Use the American, not military or European, format of month, day, and year. Spell out the month. April 3, 2013 4/3/13
3 April 2013
Apr. 3, 2013
Do not use –st, -nd, -rd, or –th with dates. The meeting will be held on May 10. The May 10th meeting was cancelled.
Do not include the year, if it is obvious.

For a letter dated March 25:

Thank you for your January 10 inquiry...

For a letter dated in February, 2013:

Our October, 2012, meeting was productive....”

Dividing names or dates between lines

Do not divide a date between lines. If an entire date will not fit at the end of a line, begin the date on the next line down.

Avoid dividing a person's name (including honorific and degree) between lines. If you must type a name partly on one line and partly on the next, the person's last name must begin the new line.



Guideline For Example
Spell out numbers zero through nine. Use numerals for numbers 10 or greater.

We have already spoken to three members of the committee.

The committee comprises 16 members.

If several numbers appear in a sentence and at least one of them is greater than nine, use a numeral for each

There are 11 men and 5 women on the committee.

There are eight men and nine women on the committee.

Avoid beginning a sentence with a numeral; rearrange the sentence if possible. If you must begin a sentence with a number, spell it out.

Acceptable: Twelve of the 16 members are doctors.

Preferred: Of the 16 members, 12 are doctors

Always use numerals for units of money, time, or measurement. 5 liters
3 mg
5 years
also $3,500, but $6 million
2- or 3-inch sticks
7 percent

Quotes within the text

Short quotations are set off by quotation marks within the text.

Dr. Smith asked, "What is the next item on the agenda?"

There was a brief delay while the Chairman consulted his notes. "We will consider Dr. Robinson's request to attend the next meeting," the Chairman finally responded.

Quotations of three lines or longer should be indented five spaces (½-inch if not using a 10-characters-per-inch font) from the left margin. Use quotation marks at the beginning and end of the quotation.

If the quotation is two or more paragraphs in length, place opening quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph and closing quotation marks at the end of only the last paragraph.



Avoid the use of symbols in correspondence. The dollar sign ($) may be used.

25 percent (not 25%)
145 degrees Celsius (not 145ş C)
$3 million

This page last reviewed on July 20, 2018

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