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

Grammar Pitfalls to Avoid: Answering Common MCC Writing Questions

a while/awhile

Awhile means “for a time”; “for” is part of the meaning already. A while means “a period of time.”

  • The farmer rested awhile.
  • She sat under a tree for a while to assess her work.


Typically, if you are referring to a thing (a noun), use effect. If you are referring to an action (a verb), use affect.

  • The rainy season had a negative effect on the construction schedule.
  • The rainy season negatively affected the construction schedule.

and/as well as

Use “and” instead of “as well as” for simplicity and brevity.


Reconfigure the sentence to avoid using and/or.

The Zambians plan to invest in tourism and/or irrigation.
The Zambians plan to invest in tourism, irrigation or both.

colloquial words and casual phrases

Avoid colloquialisms. Informal words or phrases are best suited for conversation, not MCC’s public documents.


To “assure” a person of something is to make him or her confident of it. To “ensure” that something happens is to make certain that it does. To “insure” is to issue an insurance policy.

  • The Indonesian negotiators assured their MCC counterparts of their commitment to transparency.
  • The compact ensures a series of reforms as conditions for further funding.
  • The contractor insured his work to protect against possible liabilities. 


“Fewer” refers to things that can be counted (fewer acres, fewer roads). “Less” usually refers to quantities of things that can’t be counted (less congestion, less uncertainty). 


“His” and “her” refer to singular, gender-specific subjects. “Theirs” always refers to a plural subject.

in order to

Unless there’s some need for special emphasis, drop “in order to” and simply use “to.”

like/such as

It’s a matter of taste; either is acceptable for MCC public documents. 

more than/over

More than” refers to quantity. “Over” refers to a physical location.

not only/but also

Treat the pair as flip sides of the same coin. The two sides must match and should be separated by a comma.


Post-compact results demonstrate not only whether key deliverables were met, but also whether activities affected beneficiaries’ incomes. 


Don’t use “since” to mean “because”; use “because” to mean “because.” “Since” is typically used to indicate a time period. 

Since her home was in the area of the planned new road, she was compensated.
Since the beginning of the compact, the road rehabilitation project experienced delays.

subject/verb agreement for plural/singular words

  1. Subject and verb must agree. If the subject is singular, so is the verb. If the subject is plural, so is the verb. The key to making the subject and verb agree is to correctly identify the subject. Simplify the sentence in your mind to eliminate what is extraneous to pinpoint the subject.
    • MCA-Tanzania hires a gender specialist.
    • MCA-Tanzania and MCA-Ghana hire gender specialists.
  2. When specific amounts are the subject of a sentence, use a singular verb.
    • More than $2 million is set aside for monitoring and evaluation in Mongolia.
  3. When the subject of a sentence can be interpreted as either singular or plural, like couple, total, majority, number, any, all, or none, the verb to follow is singular or plural, depending on the meaning.
  4. Subjects that stand for a group of things—couple, total, staff, majority, and number—sometimes mean the group as a whole (singular) and sometimes mean the individual members of the group (plural). The use of “the” before the word (the total, the majority, the staff) is often a clue that it’s singular, so use a singular verb. When “a” comes before the word, and especially when “of” comes after, it’s probably plural, so use a plural verb.
  5. Criteria, data and agenda, though technically plural words, have evolved over time into singular nouns taking singular verbs. No plural form is necessary when using plain language.
    The data are promising.
    The data is promising.
  6. Memorandum (memo) is a singular noun; the plural of memorandum is memoranda (preferred use) or memorandums.


Use superlatives (very, most, ever, etc.) sparingly.


“That” is a restrictive sentence element that limits, or restricts, the meaning of the word or words that it applies to. “Which” is generally a nonrestrictive sentence element that gives added information about the word or words it applies to, and can be omitted from the sentence without changing the essential meaning. Nonrestrictive elements are always set off with punctuation (most often commas or dashes).If you can drop the clause and not lose the point of the sentence, use “which.” If you can’t, use “that.” Place a “which” clause inside commas. Do not place a “that” clause inside commas. 

The Bowen Building, which was featured in a widely panned Owen Wilson film, serves as headquarters for the Millennium Challenge Corporation. [“which was featured in a widely panned Owen Wilson film” is not essential to the meaning of the sentence and can be omitted.]
The building that serves as headquarters for the Millennium Challenge Corporation was featured in a widely panned Owen Wilson film. [“that serves as headquarters for the Millennium Challenge Corporation” is essential to the meaning of the sentence and cannot be omitted.]
Farms that irrigate double their agricultural production. [“That irrigate” is essential to the meaning of the sentence and to qualifying what farms double their agricultural production.]
MCC-supported farming cooperatives, which invested in irrigation, are doubling their crop output. [“Which invested in irrigation” is not essential to the meaning of the sentence and deleting it does not alter what MCC-supported farming cooperatives are doing.]


A person is a “who.” A thing, on the other hand, is a “that.”  

  • The farmer who learned new irrigation techniques increased her income.
  • The irrigation canals that serve the region require ongoing maintenance.