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  • Special Publication:  Writing Guide for Public Documents
  • January 2012

Good Grammar Makes for Good Writing: Remembering the Basics


  1. Abbreviations and acronyms are used to save space and to avoid distracting the reader. Acronyms that abbreviate three or more words are usually written without periods (exception is U.S.S.R.). Abbreviations should only be used if the organization or term appears two or more times in the text. Spell out the full term at its first mention, indicate its abbreviation in parenthesis and use the abbreviation from then on, with the exception of acronyms that would be familiar to most readers, such as MCC and USAID.

    Ghana’s Millennium Development Authority (MiDA) is responsible for implementing the MCC compact. According to a MiDA spokesperson, the roads project in Ghana was completed on time and on budget. MiDA is updating beneficiaries of the outcomes.

  2. Avoid using acronyms where possible. If you must use acronyms, do so sparingly
    In 2009, MCC partnered with the World Bank (WB) to fund a Water-to-Market Activity (WTM) through the Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW). The WTM built capacity in MEW while achieving the poverty reduction goals of MCC and the WB.
    In 2009, MCC partnered with the World Bank to fund a Water-to-Market Activity through the Ministry of Energy and Water. The project built capacity in the ministry while achieving the poverty reduction goals of MCC and the World Bank.
  3. Two-letter words (United Nations) should be spelled out, or if an acronym is preferred, use periods between the letters (U.N.). Try to avoid using two-letter acronyms in place of nouns. If the acronym spells an unrelated word, use periods between the letters but not spaces. For compound adjectives, hyphenate the acronym.
    • She has worked at UNESCO, WWF, the World Bank, OPEC, AfDB, and the IMF. She also spent three years at the City Agricultural Monitoring Project (CAMP).
    • He met with representatives from the World Bank and the IMF at the United Nations, where they discussed IMF- and U.N.-led initiatives and MCC-funded projects.


MCC occasionally promotes academic or white papers on development topics. These papers cite facts, figures and important statements. To properly cite material or data used from other sources, writers can consult the many available style guides, including the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style.


  1. Do not capitalize seasons.
    • winter
    • spring
    • summer
    • fall
  2. Capitalize specific regions, but not ordinal directions.

    She worked in the Northern Zone of El Salvador, but enjoyed traveling south to the urban areas.

courtesy titles

Do not use.


Paul Applegarth was MCC's first CEO. Applegarth served in the position from 2003 to 2005.

Foreign Words

  1. If possible, avoid using foreign words. While MCC partner countries use multiple languages, English is the official language for MCC public documents. Foreign words and abbreviations (versus, vs.; et cetera, etc.) that are accepted universally into the English language may be used without explanation. However, if a foreign word or abbreviation is not universally understood, place it in italics and provide an explanation.

    Stoves emit a toxic brew of pollution in traditional ger homes, circular felt dwellings popular in Mongolia’s capital.

  2. Consult the State Department’s website ( ) for the primary spelling of foreign place names; do not italicize foreign place names.

    Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia.

  3. For personal names, follow the individual’s preference for an English spelling; do not italicize foreign personal names.
    • Moummer al-Kadhafi,
    • Muammer Qadhafi,
    • Moammer Gadhafi
  4. When spelling English-language titles of foreign organizations, follow the preference of the external organization.

    World Food Programme, not World Food Program


  1. Use the person's given and surname on first reference. Use only the surname on subsequent references.

    Joe Smith benefits from MCC's agriculture program in Moldova. Because of new irrigation, Smith can grow an additional 10 hectares of wheat.

  2. In cultures where only one name is traditionally used, provide a brief explanation on a subsequent reference as to why this is the case.

    Abdulhaq has worked as a translator with the U.S. military in Afghanistan for three years. Abdulhaq, who has only one name like many Afghans, has worked with Army and Marine units.

  3. In some cultures, the surname precedes the given name. On first references, follow that person's cultural protocol but use the surname on subsequent references. There is no need to provide an explanation.

    In 2013, Park Geun-hye was elected president of South Korea. Park is the first woman to hold the office.


  1. When numbers appear in text, numbers below 10 should be spelled out. Use figures for 10 and above and for numbers that require more than two words to spell out. However, always spell out any numbers that begin a sentence or re-write the sentence to avoid starting with a numeral.
    Three components of the compact are expected to alleviate poverty for more than 150,000 Salvadorans.
    560 farmers were trained by the MCC-funded project.
    The MCC-funded project trained 560 farmers.
    12 beneficiaries doubled their incomes.
    Twelve beneficiaries doubled their incomes.
  2. Do not use “a” as a replacement for “one”; be precise.
    More than a million people will benefit from the compact.
    More than one million people will benefit from the compact.
  3. All percentages should be numerals; the word “percent” must be written out.
    • More than 20 percent of the farmers increased their incomes.
    • More than 9 percent of farmers raised higher-value crops.
  4. Spell out fractions less than one and use hyphens between the words.
    • two-thirds, four-fifths, one-half
    • Over two-thirds of the compact investment is obligated.
  5. When only a month and a year are used, do not separate the year with a comma.

    Burkina Faso signed its compact in July 2008.

  6. When pluralizing a decade, do not use an apostrophe.
    Zambia experienced hyperinflation during the 1990’s.
    Zambia experienced hyperinflation during the 1990s.
  7. Very large numbers may be expressed in numerals followed by million or billion. The currency should not be noted unless it is something other than U.S. dollars. Convert to U.S. dollars where possible. Avoid using a currency symbol and stated currency in the same sentence.
    MCC invests more than $7 billion dollars to reduce poverty.
    MCC invests more than $7 billion to reduce poverty.
    MCC investments were complemented by an AUD $2 million AusAID grant.
    MCC investments were complemented by a $1.98 million AusAID grant.


  1. For plural nouns not ending in s, add ’s.

    women’s rights

  2. For plural nouns ending in s, add only an apostrophe.
    • girls’ schools
    • beneficiaries’ stories
  3. For nouns plural in form, singular in meaning, add only an apostrophe.
    • measles’effects
    • United States’ generosity
  4. For singular nouns not ending in s, add ’s.

    compact’s goals

  5. For singular common nouns ending in s, add ‘s unless the next word begins with s.
    • eyewitness’s account
    • eyewitness’ story

publication and policy titles

Italicize and capitalize the name of the publication or policy only if it is the official title.

MCC released Report on the Criteria and Methodology for Determining the Eligibility of Candidate Countries for Millennium Challenge Account Assistance in Fiscal Year 2012.
MCC released its annual country selection criteria and methodology report.
MCC operates under its Gender Policy during implementation.
MCC recently amended its environmental and social protection policy to formally adopt the International Finance Corporation Performance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability as part of continuing efforts to enhance the sustainability and effectiveness of MCC compacts and improve our standards for managing environmental and social risks.


Brackets, [ ]

Avoid brackets. Use parentheses instead or recast the sentence.

Colons, :

  1. The most frequent use of a colon is at the end of a sentence to introduce and to separate lists, tabulations and text. Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complex sentence.

    This is true: No amount of development assistance will end global poverty unless the engine of private sector, market-led growth is ignited as well.

  2. The colon can be effective in giving emphasis.

    MCC has one mission: global poverty reduction through growth.

  3. Colons go outside quotation marks unless they are part of the quotation itself.

Commas, ,

  1. Commas always go inside quotation marks.

    She said, “The compensation package helped me start a new business,” and her son nodded.

  2. Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series of words.

    The flag is red, white and blue.

  3. Use a comma before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases.

    MCC partner countries are strengthening policy performance, investing in their own development solutions, deepening capacity and transparency, and delivering the results their citizens demand.

  4. Use a comma to introduce a complete one-sentence quotation within a paragraph.

    MCC’s CEO said, “We are pursuing greater private sector engagement.”


  1. Be consistent in the use of hyphens, but do not overuse them
  2. Hyphens are joiners.
  3. Use a hyphen to link words, compound adjectives or to mark the division of single words at the end of a line. Follow a hyphen with a space only in constructions such as pre- and post-manufacturing waste.
  4. A hyphen is used when two or more words serve together as a single modifier before a noun. Yet, when the same compound adjectives follow the noun, no hyphen is used.
    • well-known NGO
    • that NGO is well known
  5. Use hyphens to link all the words in the compound modifier except the adverb very and all adverbs that end in ly. However, a hyphen is not needed for common two-word terms, like private sector.
    • full-time commitment
    • first-quarter disbursements
    • private sector growth
    • easily remembered objectives
    • highly sophisticated irrigation equipment
  6. Use hyphenation within a range.

    The impact evaluation estimates 10- to 20-year benefits.

  7. Use an en-dash to connect compound words, items of equal weight and page ranges. To create an en-dash in Microsoft Word, hold the control key and type the minus sign (the one on the numeric keypad to the right, not on the top of the keyboard). Do not use spaces on either side of an en-dash.
    • pages 46–52
    • Civil War–era
    • male–female
  8. Use an em-dash for emphasis or to denote an abrupt change in thought. To create an em-dash in Microsoft Word, type two hyphens. Do not use spaces on either side of an em-dash.
    • This difficult component of the compact—an unprecedented undertaking—requires the majority of staff time and resources.
    • MCC’s core principles—policy performance, country ownership, results, transparency—set a new standard in aid effectiveness.

Question Marks, ?

  1. Use a question mark after a direct question; do not use a question mark after indirect questions, use a period.
    The MCA director repeatedly asked what caused the low disbursement rate?
    The MCA director repeatedly asked what caused the low disbursement rate.
  2. A question mark is placed inside or outside quotation marks depending on the meaning.
    • Who wrote “Gone With the Wind”?
    • The staffer asked, “Who handles private sector engagement?”

Semicolons, ;

  1. Semicolons are generally used to indicate a greater separation of thought and information than a comma can convey, but with less separation than a period implies. Semicolons are used to separate items in a series if they are long or contain commas.

    Congressional Democrats labeled the Republican proposal with names like Ducking, Dodging and Destroying; the Slash, Burn and Pander Act; and The Bill Which Tap Dances Around the Question of Revenue and Lifting the Debt Ceiling. 

  2. Place semicolons outside quotation marks.

    She said, “The compensation package helped me start a new business”; many of her neighbors started businesses as well.


As per GPO, AP and Chicago style manuals, always use a single space after a period, exclamation mark and question mark at the end of a sentence in public documents.


  1. Avoid abbreviating titles. Always spell out and capitalize titles when they precede proper names, but generally not when they follow proper names or appear alone.
    She met with Sen. Richard G. Lugar.
    She met with Senator Richard G. Lugar.
    • The prime minister toured MCC projects in her country.
    • John Doe, the current president, plans to run again.
  2. Do not capitalize former, -ex or -elect when used in a title.
    • She met with President-elect Obama.
    • She met with former President George W. Bush.