The wording of the form

The style and tone of the wording on a form should be appropriate to its purpose and as pleasant as possible within the bounds imposed by official requirements. There is always more than one way of saying the same thing.

For example, a warning notice such as ‘No litter—Penalty 40s.’ has the advantage of brevity and may also have a salutary effect; but the more constructive alternative, ‘This Park is beautiful—please help to keep it tidy by putting litter in the bins’, is designed to promote co-operation from all concerned and thus more effectively achieve the main purpose.

Co-operation is more likely to be encouraged by politeness coupled with firmness, than by brusqueness. But politeness should not be overdone: thus ‘I am, Sir, Your Obedient Servant’ is unnecessary on forms which are an order for goods etc.; terms such as ‘Signature of Authorising Officer’ are more appropriate.

Departmental jargon can be avoided if a conscious effort is made to remember that some familiar and convenient departmental and technical terms may not be easily understood by those outside the department.

For example, in describing a scale of standard allowances the meaning of a term such as ‘escalator arrangements’ may not be readily understood by persons unfamiliar with the scheme.

Terms such as ‘regular substantial employment’ may be difficult to interpret without explanation. Departmental abbreviations should also be avoided.

Words such as ‘should’ and ‘must’ can cause difficulty; the word ‘should’ may suggest that a requirement is desirable but not essential, while the word ‘must’ can seem unduly officious.

Some departments use the word ‘must’ only when there is a statutory obligation involved. In other circumstances the difficulty with both words can be avoided by adopting the more courteous style—‘Please attach your certificate’ instead of ‘Your certificate must (or should) be attached’.