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Hennepin County Design System

Writing tips

We encourage a writing style that connects with readers, that is clear, conversational and accessible. After all, we not only serve our communities; we are part of our communities.

One relatively easy way to achieve this style is to write with a specific person or group of people in mind. If you do, you'll be far less likely to use stiff, off-putting language. Your goal is to create a connection with your readers; not to separate yourself from them.

Inclusive language

Hennepin County supports the use of language that is gender- and sexually-inclusive, and that treats all people with respect and dignity.

Gender and sexuality

In general, use terms that can apply to any gender. Such language aims to treat people equally and is inclusive of people whose gender identity is not strictly male or female.

Language around gender and sexuality is vast and constantly evolving, and different people prefer or are accustomed to different terms. If you do not know the gender of the person you are writing about or if that person does not identify as male or female, you may need to rewrite the sentence to avoid gender-specific pronouns. Ways to be inclusive and clear include:

  • Use the pronoun indicated by the person you are writing about.
  • Rewrite the sentence using plural (Participants received their certificates. Instead of, Each participant received his or her certificate.)
  • Use of the second person pronoun (You have several payment options.)
  • Use their as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun (An employee left their ID in the waiting room.)
  • Use a non-gendered role instead of a gendered one (Parents play an important role in children's lives. Instead of Fathers play an important role in daughters' lives.)
    • Do not use the term mothers' room. Instead, use lactationnursing or wellness room.
  • Reverse the order of the sentence (Instead of writing, An informed voter does his or her research before entering the voting booth. Try, Research is important to be an informed voter.)

For current recommendations on language around gender and sexuality, see the GLAAD Media Reference Guide at In addition, the Hennepin County Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming employee resource group maintains a list of pronouns and terminology in the county Trans Toolkit (link only available to Hennepin County employees).

Race and ethnicity

In most cases, a person's race or ethnicity should not be mentioned unless it is relevant to the story / text. When terms describing race are included, we recommend using the term preferred by the community you are describing. For more information, see the Diversity Style guide at and the Annie E. Casey Foundation's guidelines.

See the Word list for specific terms, including the recommendation to capitalize all race-related terms.

For language specific to Native Nations, see the Native Governance Center's style guide.

Person-centered language

Hennepin County supports the use of person-centered language. This is a strengths-based approach to word choice that puts people first. By focusing on the person instead of the condition they are affected by (physical limitation, status, mental illness, substance use disorder, etc.), you acknowledge their inherent dignity and worth.

Instead of Try using
addict person with a substance-use disorder
disabled person / people with disability
handicapped entrance accessible entrance
homeless person experiencing homelessness
mentally ill person experiencing mental illness
wheelchair bound wheelchair user

Acronyms and jargon

If possible, avoid using acronyms and jargon — most of the county's audience doesn't know what they stand for. Use a full description, then use terms like the program or the county in subsequent references.

  • The Community Development Block Grant program supports neighborhood renewal, housing development, homeownership, and social services. For more information, contact county staff at 612-111-1111.

Most people are also unaware of the various departments, reporting lines, and responsibilities within the county. To them, we are all Hennepin County. Try to make the distinctions seamless.

  • For more information on housing development, contact Hennepin County at 612-111-1111.

If the acronym is commonly-used  and recognized (MNDOT, CDC, HERC, etc.), then introduce it with the full term followed by the acronym in parentheses.

  • The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) is located in downtown Minneapolis.


Most contractions help us connect with readers. Yes, they are less formal, but avoiding them leads to stiff language that separates you from readers. So unless you’re writing legal documents, go ahead and use contractions.

When to avoid contractions

  • If your primary audience struggles with English.
  • If you need to be clear that something is not allowed. For example, if people are not allowed to bring weapons into a building, it’s clearer to say that weapons “are not” allowed instead of “aren’t.”
  • If the contraction is complex or uncommon, such as it’d, it’ll, mustn’t, etc.

Simple words

Simple words are usually clearer and more accurate

Instead of Try using
accomplish do, make, finish
ascertain learn, find out
cognizant aware
commence start, begin
demonstrate prove, show
disseminate give, send, provide, issue
endeavor try
enhance Enhance suggests increasing or improving but doesn’t say how.
Be more specific —in what way is it being increased or improved?
erroneous wrong
exacerbate make worse, aggravate
expedient easy, convenient, practical
(as a verb)
affect, influence
(as a verb)
Can you use the thing you’re implementing as a verb?
Instead of “implementing a plan,” can you plan?
individual person, people, man, woman, etc.
in order to to
initialize start
modality style, way, method
modification change
necessitate cause
optimum best, ideal
parameter limit, boundary
procure get, obtain, buy, find
requisition request
strategize plan
terminate or
end, finish
utilize use

Needless words and weak modifiers

When possible, omit needless words and weak modifiers. Each of the following sentences is stronger without the word in italics.

  • In order to avoid common errors, take the time to use a style manual.
  • Fortunately, the flaws were only cosmetic in appearance.
  • This effectively limits our ability to respond quickly.
  • We took very immediate action.

Possessive references to groups

In follow-up references to groups, use the singular its rather than the plural their.

  • The county board decided to hold its next meeting on September 22.

Active and passive voice

Voice — active is usually preferable to passive

Voice refers to whether the subject of a sentence performs or receives an action. Active sentences are generally more direct and concise than passive.

  • Passive — My first week in Hennepin County will always be remembered by me. (Remembered (action) by me (subject))
  • Active — I will always remember my first week in Hennepin County. (I (subject) remember (action))
  • Passive — When the F1 key is pressed, help information is shown. (When pressed action by you subject, information is shown (action) to you (subject))
  • Active — Press the F1 key to see help information. (You (subject) press (action) and see (action))

Voice — there are times when passive works better

The passive voice puts the object of the sentence at the beginning, giving it more focus. In the sentences below, the object (cure for cancer) is probably more important than the subject (team of scientists).

  • Active — A team of scientists discovered a cure for cancer.
  • Passive — A cure for cancer was discovered by a team of scientists.

Also, if the subject of a sentence is unknown, the passive voice is your only solution. For example, if you don't know who committed a crime, you could say "The store was robbed."

Lists and coordinate ideas

Lists and coordinate ideas should be in parallel form. Each element of a list is closely related and should be expressed similarly, in parallel form. To test if your list is parallel, see if each element works by itself with the introductory part of the sentence.

  • Not good — She is capable, experienced, and often works until late at night.
    • Test — She is capable. She is experienced. She is often works until late at night.
  • Good — She is capable, experienced, and hard-working.
    • Test — She is capable. She is experienced. She is hard-working.

Action verbs

Use action verbs rather than nominalizations (nouns and verbs). Verbs are highly productive workers. They carry the action in a sentence, and they do it quickly and efficiently. When writers ask nouns to do the work of verbs, the results (nominalizations) are much less efficient. Trust your verbs to do their job; nouns have their own work to do.

  • Nominalization — Make a revision in this sentence.
  • Action verb — Revise this sentence.
  • Nominalization — This report gives an analysis of the problem and determines a solution.
  • Action verb — This report analyzes the problem and solves it.