Writing clearly is hard enough without having to make gut-wrenching decisions about commas, spaces, hyphens, and quotation marks every few seconds. Thankfully, government writers have a sort of uniform code of conduct designed to make all government writing consistent. It’s called the Government Printing Office Style Manual, and it resolves many of the common, everyday questions that could otherwise take up a lot of your time.
What is the GPO?
The Government Printing Office Style Manual, GPO for short, is a handbook produced by the United States Government Publishing Office. It is designed for printers of federal government documents and has been adopted by government writers as the authority on matters of style, that is, questions of language that are not black and white but grey.
Who Should Use the GPO?
All employees of the United States Federal government benefit from the guidance offered by the GPO, with the exception of external affairs folks, who produce materials designed for the media and therefore are guided by the Associated Press Stylebook.
Subject matter experts producing technical reports and white papers may be subject to additional guidance from style manuals in their discipline (see What Does It Omit?, below). Writers producing regulatory documents may be subject to guidance, manuals, or handbooks that contain style suggestions and should refer to those before checking the GPO. Finally, writers submitting packages to the Federal Register should check the Document Drafting Handbook after applying the GPO’s guidance to ensure proper formatting.
Agencies would be wise to create a checklist of style guides based on the type of document writers may be creating, such as the one I made for writers with the Department of the Interior.
Can I Benefit From the GPO if I’m Not a Government Employee?
Absolutely! Many business writers, software engineers, consultants, and lawyers find the GPO a stable guide to language use.
What Does It Cover?
The GPO covers a wide range of topics. Chapters 3 and 4 explain how to capitalize proper nouns and adjectives. Chapter 6 describes the rules for joining nouns and adjectives either as compound words or with hyphens, and Chapter 7 offers a lengthy table with examples, listed alphabetically by headword.
Chapter 8 details the rules for punctuation marks, including the apostrophe, the colon, the comma, the dash, and the quotation mark. (It also specifies that the serial comma should always be used, 8.42.)
Chapter 9 explains how to abbreviate, with guidelines about which letters to capitalize and when to use periods, as well as useful tables regarding geographic and political abbreviations. It also includes a standard list of abbreviations.
Chapter 12 provides the conditions under which a numeral should be spelled out or designated with a figure. (You can download a copy of Chapter 12 in flowchart form by entering your name and email address here.)
Chapter 17 contains a number of useful tables, such as a complete list of presidents and vice presidents; countries, their capitals, type of government, and currency; and temperature, volume, and metric conversions. Chapter 18 provides Geologic Terms and Geographic Divisions, including the states, their capitals, and counties.
Specialized sections at the end of the GPO describe procedures for maintaining congressional records, writing congressional reports, and publishing congressional hearings.
How should I use the GPO?
Under no circumstances should you read the entire GPO cover-to-cover. Trust me, I’ve done it, twice. And it’s an absolute SNORE!
The book is a reference, much like a dictionary, and large sections are written for typesetters, such as Chapter 13, Tabular Work; Chapter 14, Leaderwork; and Chapter 15, Footnotes, Indexes, Contents, and Outlines.
Writers should use the GPO to look up answers to specific questions, like how many spaces belong between sentences (see 2.49, General Instructions, “Leading and Spacing”). You may wish to bookmark certain chapters for frequent reference, like Chapter 7, Compounding Examples. And it’s a good idea to keep a GPO “cheat sheet,” where you can copy and paste the rules you refer to most often.
What Does It Omit?
The GPO is a style guide, not a grammar handbook, so it does not address common grammar problems such as dangling modifiers or errors in parallel structure. It also introduces grammatical terminology such as “unit modifier” or “compound adjective” without comment. Writers unfamiliar with the finer points of grammar may wish to supplement the GPO with a good grammar handbook.
The GPO also does not address how to cite sources. Writers should refer to the style guide for their discipline for guidance in this area.
Michelle Baker, the Conservation Writing Pro, trains the government scientists who conserve our nation’s resources and edits conservation documents. Contact her for all your writing training needs: [email protected]
Michelle Baker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.