Blog post language

Policy Consolidation: Seven Critical Factors lists “language guidelines” as a critical component of a successful consolidation effort.  Specifically, using language guidelines to ensure consistency across sections is a proven best practice.

The first step in developing language guidelines is to develop definitions for frequently used terms.  This may seem obvious, but often there are different or nuanced meanings for terms across functional areas and agreeing to a common definition can be challenging.  Once defined, definitions should be organized in a Glossary.

If a word or term is in the Glossary, there should also be a way to identify the word in the body copy as a Glossary term.  Links from the body copy to the Glossary are of course recommended.  However, linking in all instances may not be feasible depending on the frequency with which the word appears. For example, in a bank document the word “loan” would be a Glossary term, but it may occur so many times that linking it each time is not practical. Some choose to link to just the first occurrence of the word or phrase in each chapter or section.

Another important element to a language guide is an Acronym list.  In the federal government, acronyms are prolific. It is standard procedure in editing to spell out the first instance of the acronym and put the acronym in parenthesis after it.  Thereafter, the acronym can be referenced with just the letters. However, for very long documents or for documents replete with acronyms, a stand-alone acronym list is very helpful.

When consolidating policy, there are frequently multiple subject matter experts (SME’s) involved in writing the document. Language guidelines are critical to ensure that documents are written with one voice.  Considerations include:

  1. Determining active versus passive voice. Will the policy state “Fill in the blank” or “The blank needs to be filled in”?
  2. Mandating auxiliary verbs to strengthen the policy.  The word “must” is both more emphatic and more definite than “may” when applied to policy.
  3. Determine what convention to use for gender identifying pronouns. Will the policy reference he, she, they or some combination of the above? Grammar purists believe that the plural “they” should not be used to identify a single noun – however, this usage is increasingly common.

Words matter in conveying nuance and providing clear direction. Word and language choices must be made and adhered to consistently when writing or consolidating policy. Consistent application of language guidelines makes the document easier to read and easier to understand and that is the goal.

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