Communications

The HHS Style – Writing for the Champion

Materials should be clear, concise and specific, using plain language.

Communications should educate and empower, rather than convince through emotional appeals. Use short sentences and one- or two-syllable words. Break large paragraphs of text into smaller ones. Write only what you need the reader to know. In copy, when HHS, HHSC or DSHS is followed by a program area, do not use an apostrophe to indicate possession or insert a comma or dash.

Example: Texas Health and Human Services Medical and Social Services

Not: Texas Health and Human Services, Medical and Social Services

Not: Texas Health and Human Services' Medical and Social Services

If the program name appears first, use a comma to set off the agency name. If more text follows, include a second comma after the agency name.

Example: Staff in Medical and Social Services, Texas Health and Human Services, help Texans access services.

Appropriate Tone

  • Use person-first, respectful language.
  • Write in second person whenever possible, using imperative or command phrases and specific calls to action.
  • Be clear and use consistent style and format.
  • Write in the active voice, using present tense.
  • Use a positive tone whenever possible. Tell the reader what they can do or need to do, instead of what they cannot or should not do.
  • If you're asking the reader to do something like supply information, you can use "please," but do so sparingly to keep the text flowing and the meaning of the word strong.

Inappropriate Tone

  • Avoid language that depicts people as "downtrodden" or "needy."
  • Avoid humor, including making jokes or puns.
  • Avoid "cute" language that could take away from the serious nature of the need or services being depicted.
  • Avoid using figures of speech. Be specific.
  • Avoid acronyms, jargon, long sentences or complex language.
  • Avoid shaming language.

Examples of Tone

Do
Use keywords and focus on overcoming challenges through determination and hard work.

"At HHS, we work hard to improve health and quality of life for people in Texas. The challenges are great, but with focus and teamwork, we strive to provide Texans with the services they need."

Don't
Do not use a passive tone that lacks energy or confidence. Don't depict clients as downtrodden.

"At HHS we care about people who are suffering. Needy Texans can be connected to services that might help them."

Do
Use positive, strength-based language to show readers they have options while still promoting the targeted behavior.

"Breastfeeding, when possible, is the healthiest choice for the child. Mothers who struggle with breastfeeding should discuss options with their health care provider."

Don't
Do not inadvertently shame people who do not or cannot carry out a promoted behavior.

"Good mothers always breastfeed to make their child healthy."

Do
Tell who the person is and describe admirable qualities, not what diagnosis or behavior a person has.

"Scott, a 20-year-old with a passion for tools, works at an auto shop and is responsible for cleaning equipment."

Don't
Do not allow biases to shape language by generalizing or stereotyping.

"People with intellectual disabilities, like Scott, are hard workers who don't mind repetitive tasks such as cleaning."

The following pages provide additional guidance on writing:

Person-First Language

Texas Government Code, Chapter 392 requires HHS to use person-first language.

All publications, rules, reference materials and electronic media must use person-first preferred terms and phrases.

People with disabilities are, first and foremost, people.

Person-first respectful language emphasizes each person's value, individuality and capabilities. Materials should focus on the person rather than the disability to reduce stereotypes, negative assumptions and generalizations.

  • Emphasize abilities, not limitations. For example, "A man who walks with crutches," not, "He is crippled."
  • Tell what a person has, not what a person is. For example, "He has a learning disability," not, "He is learning disabled."
  • Do not use the word "special," such as "special schools" or "special bus," as this implies segregation is acceptable. See exception on the Respectful, Person-first Language page.
  • Avoid negative words that imply tragedy or evoke pity, such as "afflicted with," "suffers from," "victim of," "prisoner of" and "unfortunate."
  • Avoid euphemisms such as "physically challenged," "inconvenienced," "differently abled," "handicapable" or "disAbility."
  • Language unrelated to disabilities should be considerate to avoid negative connotations and stereotypes.
  • When possible, avoid the word "individual" unless it is explicitly defined at the beginning of the text or used to distinguish people in groups from people individually. Instead, use "person" or "people." Population-specific terms are also acceptable, such as "children," "youth," "older adults," "men" or "women."
  • Avoid or include definitions for the terms "claimants," "recipients," "beneficiaries," "members" and "consumers." In certain contexts, these terms may carry negative connotations in English or Spanish. "Participants" or "applicants" are acceptable terms when the distinction is needed.

Refer to the Respectful, Person-First Language page for more examples.