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National Plain Language Peer to Peer Conference
Changes to the Style Guide are summarized in this section. A vertical line adjacent to text indicates a change. Digest entries and corresponding vertical lines will be deleted after 6 months.
Revised style for definitions
- 1 GENERAL
- 2 IMPLEMENTATION
- 3 REFERENCE FOR GRAMMAR, USAGE, CAPITALIZATION, AND PUNCTUATION
- 4 FEDERAL REGISTER'S WRITING GUIDE
- 5 BREVITY
- 6 DEFINITIONS FOR CONTRACT PARTS
- 7 INDUSTRY STANDARD
- 8 PREFERRED EXPRESSIONS
- 9 SPECIFICATION DUPLICATION
- 10 COMMON CLAUSES AND PHRASES
- 11 PAYMENT CLAUSES
- 12 REFERENCES
- 13 PROPRIETARY ITEMS
- 14 LAW CITATION
- 15 PUNCTUATION AND TYPOGRAPHY
- 16 ABBREVIATIONS
- 17 DEFINITIONS
- 18 SYMBOLS
- 19 NUMBERS
- 20 DIMENSIONS
- 21 EQUATIONS
- 22 CHEMICALS
- 23 FRACTIONS
- 24 MEASUREMENTS
- 25 PERCENTAGES
- 26 ADDRESSES
- 27 PHONE NUMBERS
- 28 RANGES
- 29 SLOPES
- 30 TOLERANCES
- 31 LISTS
- 32 TABLES
- APPENDIX A ORGANIZATION
- APPENDIX B REVISED STANDARD SPECIFICATIONS AND PROJECT-SPECIFIC SPECIFICATIONS
This guide provides instructions for specification writers contributing to the California Department of Transportation's specifications.
This guide is based on information from several sources, including the Federal Register's writing guidelines, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), AASHTO Guide Specifications for Highway Construction, and the highway construction specifications of other states. These sources may be shown in parenthesis for your information.
The examples in this guide are models for style, not actual specifications.
Interpret each rule as if followed by unless context and common sense dictate otherwise. Do not follow a rule if clarity is reduced.
Follow this guide if you are writing parts of the 2010 edition of the Standard Specifications or corresponding revised standard specifications (RSSs) or project-specific specifications (PSSs).
For guidance not covered in this guide, follow the guidance provided in CMOS for grammar, usage, capitalization, and punctuation. CMOS's Web site has answers to many grammar, usage, capitalization, and punctuation questions. The Specification Style Guide provides rules:
- From CMOS that are not used in everyday writing
- Not covered in CMOS.
- Contrary to the rules in CMOS (only a few of these). For the contrary rules, follow the rules in this guide.
Where the CMOS allows optional styles, choose the traditional style.
Follow the principles in the Federal Register's Principles of Clear Writing, duplicated in part in this section. For additional explanations, go to:
Bracketed text is text not in the Federal Register's Principles of Clear Writing.
1. Write in the active voice.
The passive voice is appropriate when the actor is unknown, unimportant, or obvious.
2. Use action verbs.
is applicable to
give recognition to
is concerned with
3. Use must instead of shall.
imposes an obligation to act, but may be confused with prediction of future action
predicts future action
imposes obligation, indicates a necessity to act
infers obligation, but not absolute necessity
indicates discretion to act
4. Be direct.
Talk directly to your readers. [In the Department's specifications, talk to the Contractor.] Use the imperative mood. [Also, use you and your.]
This style results in [specifications] that are shorter, crisper, and easier to understand.
5. Use the present tense.
A [specification] speaks as of the time you apply it, not as of the time you draft it.
6. Write positively.
If you can accurately express an idea either positively or negatively, express it positively. It's better to express even a negative in positive form.
did not comply with or failed to comply with
[Example: If you violate Pub Cont Code § 4100 et seq., the Department may exercise the remedies provided under Pub Cont Code § 4110.]
7. Avoid use of exceptions.
If possible, state a rule or category directly rather than describing that rule or category by stating its exceptions.
All persons except those 18 years or older must . . .
Each person under 18 years of age must . . .
[Use Section <Section no.> applies to <x> or <Requirement description> applies to <x> or introduce requirement with For <x>.]
However, you may use an exception if it avoids a long and cumbersome list or elaborate description.
[If a specification has exceptions, do not use general phrases such as except as otherwise specified or except as otherwise shown. Instead, specify the particular items to which the specification does not apply.]
8. Avoid split infinitives.
The split infinitive offends many readers, so avoid it if you can.
9. Use the singular noun rather than the plural noun.
To the extent your meaning allows, use a singular noun instead of a plural noun. You will avoid the problem of whether the rule applies separately to each member of a class or jointly to the class as a whole.
The guard will issue security badges to the employees who work in Building D and Building E.
The guard will issue a security badge to each employee who works in Building D and each employee who works in Building E.
[Exception: Use plural nouns for headings and titles.]
10. Be consistent.
Don't use different words to denote the same thing. Don't use the same word to denote different things.
Each motor vehicle owner must register his or her car with the Automobile Division of the Metropolitan Police Department.
Each automobile owner must register his or her automobile with the Automobile Division of the Metropolitan Police Department.
The tank had a 200-gallon tank for fuel.
The tank had a 200-gallon fuel container.
11. Use parallel structure.
Arrange sentences so that parallel ideas look parallel. This is important when you use a list.
[The following example is from the Federal Register's writing guide except that the format of the lists has been changed to comply with the format described in this guide.]
The duties of the Executive Secretary of the Administrative Committee are:
- To take minutes of all the meetings
- The Executive Secretary answers all the correspondence
- Writing of monthly reports
The duties of the Executive Secretary of the Administrative Committee are to:
- Take minutes of all the meetings
- Answer all the correspondence
- Write the monthly reports
12. Prefer simple words.
13. Omit needless words.
because of the fact that
for the period of
[including, but not limited to]
14. Avoid redundancies.
Don't use word pairs, if the words have the same effect or where the meaning of one included the other.
Examples: Word pairs to avoid
|any and all||full and complete|
|authorize and direct||order and direct|
|cease and desist||means and includes|
|each and every||necessary and desirable|
15. Use concrete words.
Abstract words can be vague and open to different interpretations. [Use] simple, concrete words. [Be specific.]
|Don't say||If you mean|
16. Don't use words that antagonize.
[Not applicable to specification writing.]
17. Avoid noun sandwiches.
Administrative writing uses too many noun clusters — groups of nouns "sandwiched" together. Avoid these confusing constructions by using more prepositions.
Underground mine worker safety protection procedures development
Development of underground procedures for the protection of the safety of mine workers
[Development of safety procedures for protecting workers underground.]
Which meaning is intended becomes clearer when this four-word sandwich is broken up.
18. Don't use gender-specific terminology.
[Exception: You may use gender-specific terminology if required to match industry-standard terminology or the law.]
19. Write short sentences.
20. Make lists clear and logical in structure.
[List by work sequence or most important to least important. If no logic, list alphabetically. Display a list of ±3 items in a vertical list.]
21. Use short paragraphs.
A writer may improve the clarity of a [specification] by using short, compact paragraphs. Each paragraph should deal with a single, unified topic. Lengthy, complex, or technical discussions should be presented in a series of related paragraphs.
Be as brief as possible without reducing clarity.
Avoid prepositions. But do not eliminate prepositions if noun sandwiches or nonparallel clauses or phrases are created as a result.
authority of the Engineer
drawings for falsework
Use elliptical clauses.
For excusable delays that are not caused by weather, the Department pays your added costs.
For excusable delays not caused by weather, the Department pays your added costs.
If the Engineer determines that a claim is without merit, you may pursue the administrative claim procedure . . .
If the Engineer determines a claim is without merit, you may pursue the administrative claim procedure . . .
Avoid unnecessary qualifiers.
- all (except to differentiate between partial and whole quantities)
- any (except to specify a choice)
- existing (with remove, reconstruct, salvage, abandon, or obliterate)
Avoid respective and respectively.
Forms are listed under the names of their respective sections.
Forms are listed under the names of their corresponding sections.
The hat and the scarf must be blue and green, respectively.
The hat must be blue. The scarf must be green.
Use the following definitions for contract parts:
A detailed formulation of a program of action (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary)
Graphic and textual information organized on a two-dimensional surface for the purpose of conveying data about a specific portion of a project. Drawings convey design intent and may show multiple views, either of the whole project or of its parts. Drawings indicate relationships between elements and may show the following for each material, assembly, component, and accessory: location, identification, dimension and size, details, and diagrams of connections, shape, and form. (CSI)
A detailed and exact statement of particulars (Means)
Provisions, conditions, requirements, and terms except as described in Section 2.6 of the Style Guide
Supplemental project information
Information relevant to the project, specified as supplemental project information, and made available to bidders (Section 110 of the Standard Specifications)
Log of test borings
Use terms in prevalent use by other states and the construction industry. Do not use terms unique to the Department. Use of a unique term requires concurrence by the specification owner, Construction, and Legal.
|Use||Do not use synonyms|
accept (for an agreement to receive something as satisfactory)
authorize (for a sanctioning from the Engineer)
certify (for drawings and plans (Bus & Prof Code 6735.5))
approve, authorize, or certify for an agreement to receive something as satisfactory
after June 30a
on or after July 1
all of the
assign (as an action of the Contractor)
for the reason that
before July 1a
no later than June 30
by means of
enter into a contract with
described in (to refer to the specifications and the drawings; to refer to the Contract)
document (for general paperwork, including records)
record (for general paperwork)
document (as a verb)
during the course of
adequate number of
in the interest of
furnish (except for furnishing work documents and samples to the Engineer or Department)
the manner in which
if (except use when in reference to time and where in reference to location)
instead of a
in lieu of
considers (meaning deems)
keepa (except use retain for records)
obtain (except use procure for materials)
upon (except use upon to introduce an event or condition)
at the Engineer's request
produce (except use manufacture to focus on a specific production part)
project (except use job site)
provisions (for laws and permits)
specifications (for specifications, including specifications such as ASTMs)
the, this, these, that, those (Use the unless it creates ambiguity.)
in order to
excessive number of
in accordance with
until such time as
at the time
during such time as
a From Appendix B -- Preferred Expressions of the Federal Register's Drafting Legal Documents
If choosing a word not in this list, balance the following:
- Use the most basic word.
- If the most basic word has many definitions and if those definitions can cause confusion (i.e., definition is not obvious by context), use a more precise word.
- Use industry-standard words.
- If a law is referenced, use the words in the law (only the core words, not the legalese).
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