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A Study of Style: The U.S. Military

Our exploration of American English strives to venture even further than the principles that guide writing with precision and eloquence. We are also interested in the language variances beyond what we accept as common for information exchange.

For example, we know that United States can be abbreviated, often as either US or U.S. One might wonder why a seemingly minor matter has a discrepancy instead of an agreement on a universal treatment. Perhaps the answer lies simply in the diversity of groups and individuals that communication serves.

Many stylebooks exist to aid greater consistency of the vast details that go into writing. Just a few examples are The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Each provides an organized, decisive framework for more-homogenous writing within particular sectors.

The United States military is yet another organization that has its own style points within the greater English lexicon. For our current discussion, we examined the Writing Style Guide and Preferred Usage for Department of Defense Issuances and two websites that address military writing style, Military OneSource and Executive Services Directorate.

The following are some items we noted as distinctive within military usage. We also compare each with direction from either AP or CMOS, our two main style references.

Numbers

  • When two or more numbers appear in a sentence and one of them is 10 or larger, use numerals for each number (e.g., About 40 people competed in 3 separate events.).
    • AP: In general, spell out one through nine; use figures for 10 or above.
    • CMOS: Spell out numbers from zero through one hundred. However, maintain consistency within the immediate context, e.g., About 105 people competed in three separate events: 55 adults in the two marathon runs and 50 youngsters in the relay race.
  • To express a percentage, always use the percentage sign (%) with a numeral (e.g., 20%).
    • CMOS: Use a figure for the number; the % symbol for scientific and statistical content (e.g., a 4% reduction in bacterial growth); and “percent” in humanistic content (e.g., The approval ratings fell to 35 percent.).

Capitalization
Capitalize terms such as Federal, Government, Union [of the United States], Service [Armed Forces], Administration, and Commonwealth both as nouns and adjectives when referring to the United States or its institutions: e.g., They work for the Federal agency, They work for the Department [e.g., of Defense], They thanked the Service member for his distinguished career.

  • CMOS: Full names, and often shortened names, of legislative, deliberative, administrative, and judicial bodies, departments, bureaus, and offices are capitalized. Adjectives derived from them are usually lowercased, as are paraphrased designations, except abbreviations.
    Thus, CMOS would write: They work for the federal agency, They work for the Department [of Defense], They thanked the service member for his distinguished career.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

  • Spell out United States when it is used as a noun. When it is used as an adjective or is preceding the word Government or the name of a government organization, use U.S. (no spaces). Always spell out United States when it appears in a sentence with the name of another country.
    Examples
    The exchange students are studying the judicial system of the United States.
    The diplomats are interested in learning even more about U.S. foreign policy.
    The United States-Canada trade relationship is strong.
    • AP: The abbreviation [U.S.] is acceptable as a noun or adjective … In headlines, it’s US [no punctuation].
    • CMOS recently changed its guidelines to allow US as a noun as well as an adjective provided the meaning is clear from the context.
  • The acronyms* DoD (Department of Defense), OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense), and U.S. do not need to be established [i.e., spelled out] upon first use.
    • AP: Use Department of Defense (DOD or Pentagon acceptable on second reference).
      Also: Some organizations and government agencies are recognized by their initials. If the entry for such an organization notes that an abbreviation is acceptable in all references or on second reference, that does not mean its use should be automatic. Let the context determine it … Names not commonly before the public should not be reduced to acronyms solely to save a few words.

Punctuation Spacing
For colons and periods, place two spaces between the punctuation and the text that immediately follows it. For commas and semicolons, place one space between the punctuation and the text that immediately follows it. (Note: Within civilian communication, one space after colons and periods is the standard in the leading style guides we’ve consulted.)

Word Choice
The following are just a few examples of preferred terminology listed in the Writing Style Guide and Preferred Usage for Department of Defense Issuances.

Instead of Use
Armed Services Military Services
coincidentally at the same time
prevalent widespread
retirement pay retired pay
workman’s compensation worker’s compensation

In the future we plan to look at other style guides to widen our awareness of how resources both resemble and differ from one another.

* Rather than “acronyms” as used by the military style guide, we sticklers would have used the term “initialisms” to describe abbreviations pronounced one letter at a time.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

8 responses to “A Study of Style: The U.S. Military”

  1. Marcela says:

    Excellent style guide; having worked as a translator for the military, I find this article very useful.

  2. Diane Tindell says:

    I believe that DoD and OSD should be referred to as initialisms not acronyms as they are spoken letter by letter and not as a word.

    • The military guidance documents we cited incorrectly referred to these terms as “acronyms.” As self-described sticklers, we are going to take the liberty of making the appropriate substitution of “initialism,” as you’ve correctly noted.

      We wish to thank the other astute readers (sticklers) who commented on this point.

  3. The military guidance documents we cited incorrectly referred to these terms as “acronyms.” As self-described sticklers, we are going to take the liberty of making the appropriate substitution of “initialism,” as you’ve correctly noted.

    We wish to thank the other astute readers (sticklers) who commented on this point.

  4. Nathan Deunk says:

    As a 26-year veteran who recently retired, I’ve noticed that we tend to use pronouns far less frequently than civilian counterparts, especially in email. This paragraph is a good example. Notice how “our” is missing from before “civilian.”

    Another example:

    In emails, I frequently write something like, “Good response. Thinking we could ask SECNAV to weigh in. Staff a standard Navy memo on official letterhead by Friday morning for signature.”

    In my new job as a civilian, it appears a more common response is, “Thanks for the great input on this decision. I think we might want to have the staff members at SECNAC take a look and see what they think. Could you write a memo in standard Navy format and have it put on official letterhead for my signature by Friday morning?”

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      You raise an interesting point. The military does often use a more-abbreviated form of communication. This would seem to coincide with the military’s enhanced sense of and focus on time and efficiency.

      • Vic says:

        The “ABC’s” of communication in the military… Accuracy, brevity and clarity… Is the reason why the military uses many acronyms and shortens sentences. The flow of communication is “. . . . or – – – – e.g. The. cat. runs. fast. , the – horse – gallops – fast”. When communicating over voice circuits it’s supposed to be modulated as I illustrated, a slight or little longer pause between words, so it has been carried over with written communication, although it is incorrect to write this way!

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