Getting the tone right

It is important that we write in a way that creates a favourable impression of the County Council. This means writing in a friendly tone and avoiding impersonal, bureaucratic language that might alienate our readers.

We can improve the tone of our writing in various ways:

Use everyday words which your reader will understand

Avoid unusual or complex words that can seem pompous and confuse your reader. If you have to use a technical term that your reader may not understand, explain it briefly in non-technical language.

If there is no everyday word you can use, you need to decide what you are trying to say. Then find a different way to explain your message.

For example, use the plain English words in bold rather than the unfamiliar ones on the left.

designated - chosen
concerning - about
facilitate - help
initiate - begin
mandatory - compulsory
modification - change
reimburse - refund
remittance - payment
supplementary - more, extra
utilise - use

The words and phrases listed on the right are more likely to be understood by your reader than those on the left.

report herewith - report attached
in respect of - about, for
should you require assistance - if you need any help
you are requested to complete - please fill in
consideration has been given - we have considered
heretofore - until now
irrespective of - even if
in the event of - if
prior to - before
indicated - said
relating to - about
he indicated - he said

Further examples of words and phrases to avoid and words to use in their place can be found in Appendix E.

Avoid old-fashioned words and phrases

Many of these originate from legal terms and can make writing seem pompous and bureaucratic. They set a cold and impersonal tone and reflect badly on the County Council.

Avoid the phrases shown on the left and use instead the ones on the right:

at your earliest convenience - when convenient
with reference to - about
above mentioned - above
in accordance with - because of, under
with effect from - from
with regard to - about, for
forthwith - now, at once

Further examples can be found in Appendix E.

Avoid long-winded language

Don't use too many words, especially when they don't add to your meaning. Superfluous words or phrases include the extra words often used to introduce sentences. Instead, be brief and get straight to your message.

Avoid phrases such as:

Talk directly to the reader and use personal expressions

Use straightforward commands when writing instructions.

Use personal pronouns like we to refer to the County Council or your department and you to refer to your reader. However, generally it is not appropriate to use personal pronouns in committee reports.

Explain abbreviations and acronyms

Just as we should not shorten Hampshire County Council to HCC, we need to be careful about other abbreviations too.

The first time we write an abbreviation or an acronym, we should always write the name in full with the abbreviation or acronym in brackets afterwards. After that, we can abbreviate it. This includes abbreviations that may be very familiar to us, but not necessarily to our readers, eg South Hampshire Rapid Transit (SHRT), Corporate Management Team (CMT) and Local Education Authority (LEA).

If your document is to be used for reference and is unlikely to be read from start to finish, avoid using abbreviations and acronyms. Or set them out in full at least once in every section.

Abbreviations are easier to read without the full stops between the letters, eg DTI, DTLR. The same applies to academic and honours letters after names, eg PhD, OBE. Likewise, abbreviations such as eg, ie, etc, lb, kg and mph do not need full stops after them.

A comma (or semi-colon) should always precede the abbreviations ie and eg.

Avoid overusing passive verbs

Most verbs can be used in the active or the passive. By using active verbs, you will keep the word order simple and avoid using extra words. For example:

In the active, the agent or doer usually comes before the verb. In the passive, the agent or doer usually comes after the verb or is not stated at all.

Passive verbs can cause problems for readers because they may make sentences more difficult to understand. They may also avoid saying who is responsible for the action. Their overuse affects the tone of the writing, making it sound cold, unfriendly and bureaucratic.

How can you recognise a passive verb? The last part of a passive verb usually ends in -ed or -en and usually has one of these words before it: be, been, being, was, were, is, am, are. For example:

Compare these with active examples that have the same meaning:

Expressions like I hope, I suggest, please reply promptly make a much simpler and more direct appeal to the reader than their equivalents in the passive.

Keep your sentences short and simple

Long sentences are one of the main reasons that readers find a document hard to understand. Aim to use a maximum of 15-20 words in any sentence. And break your sentences in a clear and logical way. You can vary the length of your sentences; very short sentences are useful for making a point strongly. Keep to one main point or idea in a sentence, with perhaps one other related point.

Avoid foreign expressions that people might not understand

Terms like inter alia (among other things), re (about) and ad hoc (for this purpose) will be off-putting to many readers. There is always a plain English equivalent.

Use positive words

Be positive and avoid negative words and phrases where possible. Positive sentences are easier to understand than negative ones.

For example, write:

`Please send me the form by 31 October'

rather than

`Do not send the form any later than 31 October'.

Avoid sexist or discriminatory language

The standard practice of using `he' when the gender of the person referred to is not known, is no longer generally acceptable. S/he, he or she, or his/her may seem cumbersome but is considered less offensive. They, them and their are becoming increasingly acceptable in writing as well as in speech to refer to unspecified individuals of either gender. For example:

Each applicant should use their allowance as they choose.

Avoid using words or phrases which could be considered offensive by any sections of the community.

Avoid implied criticism of your reader

Expressions such as "you have failed to complete the application form correctly" will get a negative response from your readers.

In short, write naturally, as if you were talking to a friend. This will help you keep your tone friendly and positive.