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Composition Frequently Misused Words Grammar Punctuation Style

Everyone who writes to the NIH is entitled to a prompt, courteous, honest response. A few general points you should consider in composing correspondence follow:
Be brief.
Avoid unnecessary words. Among the most frequently encountered unnecessary words and phrases, with suggested improvements, follow:
Instead of ... Try ...
at the present time now
first annual first (until a second annual has actually happened, do not use annual to describe an event, publication, etc.)
in order to to
in the event that if
no later than by
take steps to eliminate the phrase
as a result of because
for the purposes of to
I would like to just say what you would like to say
certainly eliminate this and most other intensifying modifers (like very)
prior to before

Some other weak or trite phrases are agree to disagree, acid test, all things considered, for the most part, and just deserts. You might want to try crossing out redundancies, weak or unnecessary words, and trite phrases in the next three of four pieces of correspondence you receive. (It is always much easier to improve what someone else has written.) Prove to yourself that the documents are now shorter and easier to read.

Use the active voice.
One way to avoid unnecessary words is to use the active voice, which requires fewer words than the passive voice. In the active voice, an actor (not necessarily a person) does something. In the passive voice, something is done to a person or thing; often the actor is not identified.
Active: I received your letter. Passive: Your letter has been received.
Active: Tom will prepare a report. Passive: A report will be prepared by Tom.

Your writing will be clearer and stronger in the active voice. Similar to the suggestion above, you might try changing passive voice to active voice in correspondence you receive to see how much shorter, clearer, and stronger the documents become.

Avoid redundant phrases.
Some common redundant phrases are listed below.

both...as well as —Choose one or the other.
in addition to...also —They mean the same thing.
and also —This is almost always a redundant construction.
close scrutiny —By definition, all scrutiny is close.
advance planning —You cannot plan after the fact.
major breakthrough —If the discovery is minor, it is not a breakthrough.
new innovation —Innovations are always new.
invited guests —Uninvited guests are generally called gatecrashers.
but nevertheless —One or the other is sufficient.
on the occasion when —Either on the occasion of or when will suffice. When has the advantage of being much shorter.
true fact —If it is not true, it is not a fact.
eliminate altogether —If some remains, it has not been eliminated.
fill to capacity —If something is filled, by definition, its capacity has been reached.
strangle to death —Strangle means to kill by choking.
blue in color —Context should make it clear whether you are talking about mood or color.

Avoid referring to incoming correspondence as recent.

When the incoming correspondence is less than a month old, you may cite the date of the correspondence—except when preparing a document for signature by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (see below). When an incoming document is more than a month old, cite it by describing its content:

"This is in response to your letter asking about funding for research into alternative treatments for hypertension."

When preparing a document for signature by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, never cite the date of the incoming correspondence. Instead, always cite the incoming by describing the content of the letter or memorandum, as shown in the example above.

Do not add qualifiers to unqualifiable adjectives.

For example, do not write that something is more unique than something else. Things either are or are not unique. Similarly, do not write of something being more perfect. The Founding Fathers could create "a more perfect union," but common sense tells us that something is perfect or it is not.

Do not thank the writer of an abusive letter.

A writer of an abusive letter is entitled to a response but does not expect to be thanked. Even if you are upset, be courteous as well as honest. Begin with a neutral approach, such as, I have received your letter.

Do not encourage additional correspondence.

Do not invite a follow-up letter by using phrases such as:

Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.

A preferred closing would be:

I hope this information is of help.

Do not write in another's name unless authorized.

Unless it is true, do not say:

The President [Secretary] has asked me to respond to your letter.

An opening sentence that reads:

I am responding to your letter to the President...,

is appropriate.


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Last updated: April 17, 2003