Skip to main content

Information Status

In light of OPM guidance and increasing concerns about COVID-19 (coronavirus), we are suspending accepting training requests.

Place the main idea before exceptions and conditions

Start with your main idea – not an exception.

When you start a sentence with an introductory phrase or clause beginning with “except,” you almost certainly force the reader to reread your sentence. You are stating an exception to a rule before you have stated the underlying rule. The audience must absorb the exception, then the rule, and then usually has to go back to grasp the relationship between the two. Material is much easier to follow if you start with the main idea and then cover exceptions and conditions.

Don’t say Say
Except as described in paragraph (b), the Division Manager will not begin the statutory 180-day review period for the program until after the preliminary review determines that your submission is administratively complete. The Division Manager will not begin the statutory 180-day review period for the program until the preliminary review determines that your submission is administratively complete. However, see paragraph (b) for an exception.

In the first version, the audience has to decide whether to jump immediately down to paragraph (b) or continue reading to the end of the sentence. This means the audience is focusing on reading strategy, not on your content.

There is no absolute rule about where to put exceptions and conditions. Put them where they can be absorbed most easily. In general, the main point of the sentence should be as close to the beginning as possible.

Use the word if for conditions. Use when (not where), if you need if to introduce another clause or if the condition occurs regularly.

If an exception or condition is just a few words, and seeing it first will avoid misleading users, put it at the beginning instead of the end.

Don’t say Say
With your grant application you must submit a resume containing your undergraduate, graduate, and any other professional education, your work experience in the field of health care, and the name, and phone number of current and previous employers in the health care field, unless you have already submitted this information. Unless you have already submitted an up-to-date resume, you must submit a resume containing your undergraduate, graduate, and any other professional education, your work experience in the field of health care, and the name, address and phone number of current and previous employers in the health care field.

If an exception or condition is long and the main clause is short, put the main clause first and then state the exception or condition.

Don’t say Say
Except when you submitted an identical application for an education grant in the previous year and you received full or partial grant for that year’s program, we will schedule a hearing on your application. We will schedule a hearing on your application, except when you submitted an identical application for an education grant in the previous year and you received full or partial grant for that year’s program.

If a condition and the main clause are both long, foreshadow the condition and put it at the end of the sentence. If there are several conditions, lead with “if” or a phrase such as “in the following circumstances.”

  • Before

    If you, or an interested party, requests that the hearing be held at the educational institution where you plan to instruct program participants, and the hearing room is both handicapped-accessible and large enough for at least 100 people, we may, at our discretion, hold the hearing at that location, after adequate public notice.

  • After

    We may hold a hearing at the educational institution where you plan to instruct program participants if:

    1. You, or an interested party, request the location;
    2. The hearing room is large enough for at least 100 people and handicapped-accessible; and
    3. We can give adequate public notice.

Use a list (like the example above) if your sentence contains multiple conditions or exceptions.

Use numbers or letters to designate items in a list if future reference or sequence is important (for example, in a regulation). Otherwise, use bullets.

  • Before

    With your grant application you must submit a resume containing your undergraduate, graduate, and any other professional education, your work experience in the field of health care, and the name, and phone number of current and previous employers in the health care field, unless you have already submitted this information.

  • After

    Unless you have already submitted an up-to-date resume, you must submit a resume containing:

    • Your undergraduate, graduate, and any other professional education;
    • Your work experience in the field of health care; and
    • The name, address and phone number of current and previous employers in the health care field.

Make implied conditions explicit by using if.

Don’t say Say
A party must make advance arrangements with the hearing officer for the transportation and receipt of exhibits of unusual bulk. If your exhibits are unusually bulky, you must make advance arrangements for transporting them with the hearing.

Avoid using an exception, if you can, by stating a rule or category directly rather than describing that rule or category by stating its exceptions.

Don’t say Say
All persons except those 18 years or older must… Each person under 18 years of age must…

But use an exception if it avoids a long and cumbersome list or elaborate description.

Don’t say Say
Alabama, Alaska, …, and Wyoming (a list of 47 states) must Each state except Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona must…

Sources

  • Charrow, Veda R., Erhardt, Myra K. and Charrow, Robert P., Clear & Effective Legal Writing, 4th edition, 2007, Aspen Publishers, New York, NY, pp. 166-167.
  • Garner, Bryan A., Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Court Rules, 1996, Administrative Office of the US Courts, Washington, DC, pp. 5-9.
  • Office of the Federal Register, Drafting Legal Documents, 1998, § 7.
  • Wydick, Richard, Plain English for Lawyers, 5th edition, 2005, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, pp. 46-47.